Highcliffe beach is pretty. It was also 15 minutes from my Christchurch B&B. Luck was with me because there were few people around. I wasn’t completely alone, of course, but it was pleasantly quiet and remote. To the east was London, to the west, Cornwall. To the south, Frogland. I walked out to a stone jetty and began shouting in Chinese. Poseidon had none of it and I promptly slipped on the slick, sea moss-covered rocks. My pride being the only thing wounded, I slowly made my way to wash off the grime after picking up Chinese take-away. I also organised a taxi. One really couldn’t be asked to drag luggage a mile to Hinton Admiral.
The journey to Wales went by smoothly. There was only one stop which made everything go by much more easily than some of the more complex journeys. In between reading “a Midsummer Night’s Dream” and drinking a stunningly mediocre cappuccino from Pumpkin Café, I could observe the English countryside passing by. Travelling through Bristol was odd. Suddenly, the train began moving backwards and never went in the “correct” direction again. Equally suddenly, we went into a tunnel that seemed to be endless. When we finally re-emerged into daylight the signs took on a strange new fascination. The top line had a motley collection of letters that made absolutely no sense. For a second I thought that either a cat fell asleep on a keyboard or someone was having a larff. Then it occurred to me that we were in Wales. The sudden appearance of green-and-white banners-with-a-red-dragon-super-imposed made that point clearer yet. South Wales reminded me a lot of Saarland. In the 19th century coal mining brought a lot of wealth to the region but, since the mid-20th century, the decline of the main industries have only partially been off-set by the growth of new ones. There is splendid architecture in both places from their golden age, but a fair amount of obvious decline as well. Wales and Saarland also have excellent porcelain industries. That said, I will forever remain partial to Cymru. At least they drive on the correct side of the road. The taxi drivers also found me terribly amusing. The first things they saw in my Waitrose jute bag were a box of Yorkshire Gold Tea and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. They found it English to excess and only forgave me of this unutterable offence because of my lingering Hunnish accent. I doubt the Scots will be nearly as kind.
I arrived in time to take the final tour through Cardiff Castle, but little else. In Wales it seems as if the pavement rolls up at 5:00 PM. The Victorian Fantasy of the castle was endearing. The mediaeval era as it never; was the proof that with enough money all madness becomes glorified eccentricity. I also found the war tunnels fascinating. I’ve read about bomb shelters in the UK and have covertly visited others in Germany with my mum as a child. The British ones are often still open for visits, the German ones are generally sealed-off for ‘elf and safety reasons. In both instances, there is a depressing austerity about them – the overwhelming sense that the only thing that could drive people to seek shelter in these dank, dark hideous grey concrete passages and holes was an overwhelming fear of annihilation; in other words, the reality of war. Reading about life in Cardiff during the Second World War reminded me of what my grandparents told me about waking up to sirens at night and seeing cluster bombs falling in the distance.
The following day I visited the National Museum Wales, or Amgueddfa Wlân Cymru. It was nice enough, although the structure is more imposing than the contents. The Cardiff Story was more interesting. After the V&A, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, etc. museums simply begin to blur into each other. The tributes to the greats of the past, the celebration of glorious success through the sponsorship and collection of masterpieces resemble each other. I appreciate these institutions, of course, but have developed a preference for museums that centre on life as it was lived be it by the wealthy, the poor and all that is in the middle. The Cardiff Story did just that and it reminded me a lot of the Rocks in Sydney. In fact, much of Cardiff reminded me of Sydney’s older neighbourhoods – as well as Adelaide. Alas, I could not achieve all that I wanted to in Wales. I planned things out well before my work schedule came in and I had to finish marking a series of terribly mediocre assignments at the same time I was obliged to write a story for an English course. (I will take an introductory degree in English this month)
The following morning I had to leave Wales and the United Kingdom for the Republic of Ireland. The coach ride to airport was beautiful. The Vale of Glamorgan is scenically far more impressive than the Welsh borders and Cardiff. But it didn’t matter; I could still pay homage the land of Fluellen.
The Republic of Ireland blurs in my memory. It was pretty, of course, and the people were generally pleasant enough. The train journey from Dublin to Galway was nice enough. The trains are relatively new and clean. The conductor was also very pleasant. I forgot where I placed my train ticket but he did not issue me a fine. He asked me to show it to him before we left, or at least some form of payment. I found it in the end and he laughed it off. “99pc of the time if you can’t find a ticket it’s somewhere to be found on the train” were his exact words. My B&B in Galway was much unlike my B&B in Cardiff. The Cardiff location was Edwardian, perhaps even late Victorian. It was well-kept and the owner was the fourth generation to run the place. The Galway B&B was a relatively recent construction and those working there were all younger Irish. They were a lot of fun and my stay there was exceedingly pleasant. Then again, they also served me black pudding which is delicious.
I booked a return coach ride to Clifden in Connemara. The journey was beautiful, although it still felt like a poor man’s Britain. Clifden was a pretty village nestled in the middle of the Twelve Bens, but it felt like an underwhelming Welsh village. I was thoroughly disappointed that what claims to be an Irish-speaking village was, in fact, English-speaking. Younger residents were working in Galway or had moved on to Dublin or Cork. Those who remained to do similar jobs were Poles. As a result, virtually all discussion was in English. Galway is also English-speaking. Well, whatever passes as English in Ireland…
Far more interesting were the Aran Islands. I took two sojourns to the heart of Irish culture – the first to Inishmaan, the second to Inishmore. The first time I truly enjoyed Ireland was on Inishmann. I was virtually alone. Only one other passenger, an elderly Swede, alighted with me. I chose to walk everything, to savour the solitude along the rock-lined paths, climbing the sparse terrain. Ireland’s reliance on tourism grated me. One could, of course, visit anything – at a cost. The Irish taxi drivers were also eager to offer their services on sight-seeing trips. I turned me off visiting a number of places. Inishmann was different. They didn’t care. I could walk around in circles as much as I’d bloody well please, it was nothing for them. It was a stunningly clear day and I could see the Cliffs of Moher from the southern point of the island across from Inisheer. The solitude was therapeutic, cathartic. I leisurely walked back to the pier visiting the Canon Church, a long-abandoned mediaeval construction and a Dolman. In peace I visited a chapel with pleasant enough stained-glass windows. On the pier I could hear young local residents speak to each other in Irish. On the ferry back to mainland Ireland, a man walked up to me and began speaking to me in Irish. I blended in well enough to pass as Irish. He was at first cross with me because I couldn’t understand him, but he forgave me quickly when he realised that I wasn’t even Irish. After a brief discussion of Irish history, he bid me a pleasant journey.
The following day I took train to Athenry – not terribly far from Galway. It’s a pretty town with one of Ireland’s better-preserved Norman castles, a ruined monastery that suffered Cromwell’s tender mercies and some of the region’s better mediaeval remains. Apparently in one of their many battles, the Irish managed to largely wipe-out the population of the town leaving it an irrelevance. This spared the town’s architecture the careless re-building seen in other neighbouring towns and cities. Still, I was cross when I was treated like a paedophile for visiting a museum which was open but not staffed. The warnings I received from the UK about the “weirdness” in Ireland after the revelations of decades of clerical impropriety came true. Although evicted, the staff were almost apologetic as they sense that it was absurd and insulting.
On my final full day in Western Ireland I travelled to Inishmore, Father Ted country. It was amusing, although I did not enjoy it quite as much as Inishmaan. There was a lot more to do there, of course. Because of my time limit, I took a guided tour of the island. The guide was a local man who returned to the island after working in California and Dublin for a time. He admitted that he’d prefer to eke out a living fishing and guiding visitors rather than live on the Irish mainland again. As usual, I was the strange one. I didn’t care quite so much about Dun Aengus. Grand prehistoric fort, yes, I know that is what it is – but it was very, very windy and the sea was at least 200 yards beneath. Crawling on my hands and knees I turned to my neighbour, a Japanese pensioner on holiday and asked her “ちょっと怖いですね” to which she replied “はい、怖い、怖い”. I bought a couple pieces of knitwear from a local woman who made her own products to sell. Her products were slightly rougher than the machine-made goods brought in from the mainland, but it was re-assuring to know that she kept this industry alive.
The next day I went to Dublin. I did not like Dublin. The only great redeeming feature about Dublin was the Polish clerk at my B&B. That, and the Nigerian taxi driver who drove me from train station. Actually, I enjoyed all the African taxi drivers I met in the UK and Ireland. They were the honest ones who didn’t take longer journeys than they had to. I made it to Dublin Castle in time to visit the State Apartments, but the mandatory guide was a bit of a tosser who made many casual errors. In my younger years I would have corrected him, but couldn’t be bothered at that point. Then again, I am not a militant Hibernophile. After a walk along the river and past the more scenic parts of the capital I returned to the B&B and asked the same Polish clerk if “this bloody city was built by a bunch of bloody drunks”. She had a good laugh at that and said that the answer was too obvious to need answering, but that it did also indicate a typically Irish tendency to put little effort into planning and just go along with whatever comes.
The following morning I barely made it to train station in time to go to Belfast. In fact, 20 seconds after I entered the last coach the doors shut and we drove away. I enjoyed Northern Ireland. I enjoyed Belfast. I knew, in fact, when we crossed the border to the Province because the atmosphere changed. That, and the number of Union Flags flying. Oh, and the number plates. Belfast has a tragic history, but it’s beautiful and it is infinitely more sensible in terms of planning than Dublin. Then again, Belfast was a small town until the 19th century and was quickly built at a time when urban planning took a more central role than it did during the Viking era. I had lunch at the Crown Saloon, one of Belfast’s landmarks and one of the best-preserved Victorian gin palaces. I came at a quiet time and was the only customer. The building was a stunning thing, a master-piece of Victorian whimsy and over-wrought charm. I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the next few hours I walked past the city’s Victorian splendour, its monuments to past glories of shipping and transit. It was beautiful and, in a refreshing contrast to Dublin, felt like an actual city rather than a tourist theme-park. On future visits, I think I’ll stay in Northern Ireland.