Speaking too soon

Or, in this case, blogging too soon.

The other day I extolled the virtues of sailing to Ireland, rather than flying. At the back of my mind was the thought that perhaps I should save the post until I’d completed my return journey, but in the end I decided to go with it.

The morning after I published it, I got a text from the ferry company informing me that severe weather conditions had put my crossing in jeopardy. Within two hours, it had officially been cancelled. I was automatically transferred to one of two slower crossings – one at 8.05 or 20.55. This boiled down to a choice between a 5am drive to Dublin, or four and a half hours on the platform of Holyhead station in the early hours of the morning. The former – thanks to a generous offer of a lift from my father – won.

A good thing about ferry crossings is that even when fast crossings are cancelled, the slow ones almost always go. It’s not like flights where cancellations wreak havoc; it simply means that the massive slow boats (on Irish Ferries, it’s the Ulysses, which seems appropriate) become fuller and you’re faced with a four hour voyage instead of a two hour one. However, there are fewer crossings – which can mean if the quick ferry is cancelled at the last minute, you have a lot of time to kill in Dublin. [Seven years ago this happened to us on one of the coldest days I’ve ever known. My mother insists that this has put her off the city forever.]

Anyway, this change of plan basically meant that today, my already epic journey became epic-er. At 5.15am I waved goodbye to my Mum; by 7.15 I was boarding the boat – so far so good. However, by the time I finally disembarked at midday (and endured a ridiculous baggage fiasco) and got a seat on a train that was packed (thanks to the simultaneous arrival of two packed ferries), my patience was wearing very thin. Add to the confusion train announcements that were entirely in Welsh, and by 12.30 I was beginning to unravel. I spent a good while actually believing I was on the wrong train – after all, surely a train going to Cardiff from Holyhead couldn’t also be going north to Chester? [Turns out it does – Welsh trainlines are very special.]

All that kept me sane was a serious dose of magic, in the form of Harry Potter 2, 3 and 4, and a picnic breakfast/lunch/tea made lovingly by my mother. Exactly 12 hours after I’d left Belfast, I arrived at my front door. After so many hours travelling (and making it through four different countries), you might have thought I’d have ended up somewhere a lot more interesting…

Sailing home for Christmas

A surprising discovery during the Volcanic Ash Cloud drama, was that it’s remarkably cheap to travel from England to Ireland via train and boat. For little more than £30, my Dad was able to escape from Manchester and make it back to Belfast in the same day. Last Christmas it also saved my stranded Australian Godsister from a Christmas on the floor of Stansted airport. This Christmas, partly to avoid potential travel chaos and partly because it seemed like a more logical option, I bought a SailRail ticket to Ireland instead of budget flights.

On paper, it does look slightly ridiculous. I exchanged a 4 hour door-to-door journey for a 9 hour one. Flying would’ve involved a 40 minute train journey, an hour’s flight and a 20 minute car ride. SailRail comprised two 2 hour train journeys, a 2 hour ferry crossing and a two hour car ride – that’s considerably epic. (Though I’m grateful that getting to Euston only required a 15 minute walk.)

However, there are multiple benefits:
– The environmental damage is less.
– The only luggage restriction is what you can carry – no liquid restrictions or security checks.
– There’s a lot more potential for getting work done at tables.
– Chester to Holyhead is a very scenic route.
– You can watch a lot of DVDs (or iPlayer downloads) in 6 hours.
– It’s cheaper than flying.

Of course, being me, I had to find my own form of entertainment. I’d been amazingly organised and not only had created a picnic for both breakfast and lunch (when your train leaves at 7.10am, you need to take a breakfast picnic) but had also trawled iPlayer for fun things to watch. Sitting on the train, immersed in the Steve Jobs documentary, I realised that most of my fellow passengers were also en route to Dublin – after all, who else would be so keen to get to Chester at that hour of the morning?

Knowing from previous ferry experiences that electricity is hard to come by on the boat, I had a power-saving strategy too – keep Macbook plugged in on both trains, thus ensuring that I definitely had enough juice to keep me amused to Dublin. Arriva Trains Wales’ non-functioning sockets threatened to scupper this, but I managed to find my own amusement for the Chester-Holyhead leg.

An unpleasant encounter with an unreasonable woman with an overly-large bag introduced me to a beardy, bookish fellow. He pointed out to the woman that on a crowded train it was rather off to place a large bag under a table, thus meaning that no one else sat there would have room for their feet. The woman angrily refused offers to move the bag and didn’t seem to see what the problem was, so beardy man and I moved away and found alternative seats. Always a fan of beardy, bookish types, I chronicled my adventures on Twitter and in turn managed to amuse some friends too. When you’re going to be in a confined space with the same group of people for several hours, there’s always scope for making a new friend…

The ferry trip and time in Eire meant that I was out of Twitter contact for several hours. The last friends at home heard of the saga was that I’d spotted what he was reading while we were on board the bus from the station to the ferry. Details of the rest of the trip had to wait until after the Twitter blackout. I did make a friend, but not beardy man – an 18 month old child travelling with her mum who needed an extra hand/pair of eyes at changeovers. It’s probably a good thing that I became separated from beardy man onboard as within half an hour of cast-off, I was beginning to turn green at the gills. The fast crossings are a good thing (2 hours instead of 4), but on a moderately rough sea, it’s rather choppy. The sight of a small child throwing up into a Waitrose carrier bag almost finished me off, but a festive episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks took my mind off it till we reach land again.

I’m rather looking forward to my return trip on Thursday – I may even use the time for a Harry Potter marathon. The only niggling worry is that the Irish/British let me out/in. The ferry company said passports weren’t needed for crossings and that a driving licence or bankcard would be sufficient ID. However, when your driving licence says you were born in Tonga, it doesn’t make for great evidence of your nationality…

Walking with Giants

For some time it’s been a bone of contention with my parents that while they had taken my sister to the Giant’s Causeway on her first trip across the Irish Sea (back in 2004) I’d never been. Apparently, it was all a bit anti-climactic for my mother, so although they’ve taken other visitors there since, it’s not high on her list of ‘things to do’. However, when I planned my latest visit, my Mum promised to take me there (all the while reminding me that it might not be quite what I imagined – always keen to prevent disappointment!).

I wasn’t disappointed – not one bit.
Of course, it helped that Northern Ireland unexpectedly had a heatwave over the first few days of September. [I spent 76 hours there and it only rained in the last two – that’s a record.] For the first time in 6 years of visiting I had bare arms and could have done with some sunscreen.

There is of course a lot of history, myth, legend and geological information about the Causeway, but I can’t really be bothered to write about it. Wikipedia has a decent entry, so if you’re ‘hot for rocks’ (to quote a friend who is quite the geological stalker) head over there. It’s also worth noting that should you be trying to reach the rocks using a Sat Nav, you will need to include the apostrophe in order for it to be found – that pleased me immensely. What did not amuse me was the lack of consistency in road signage – some used the possessive apostrophe, others didn’t. Shame on you sign writers…

Unsurprisingly, I took about a billion photos (that might be a teeny-tiny exaggeration) using two cameras almost simultaneously. I was allowed to play with my parent’s DSLR, but not while rock climbing – which was when my lovely little camera came in very handy. My mother’s vertigo also came in handy as it meant she could take photos of me clambering about the rocks, much in the manner of a mountain goat. [Even as I write I’m singing Lonely Goatherd to myself…] Here’s a bit of a photo-story:

“Oh hello – you want to take photos?”

“Yes, I want to take photos!”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Did you say ‘stand on one leg?’ – ok then!”
[Yell from mum below – “Don’t do that! You’ll fall off!!”]

Photographing very interesting rock formations

Interesting rock formations

“Now, let me just sit here a while and ponder…”

“Maybe I’ll sit here and take some more photos.”

There are a lot of photos on Flickr – mostly of rocks – but here’s a small taste: 

Regional variations

One of the quirks of living in a nation made up of many nations is the way that devolution is effected in day to day life. Take two examples from today (during which I’ve travelled through England, Wales, Eire and Northern Ireland to get to Belfast for Christmas):

1) Bilingual road signs.
In Wales, there’s no consistency in whether the Welsh is above or below the English place name/traffic instruction. Slightly problematic when you’re driving (when I say ‘driving’, I was navigating as I don’t actually drive) to somewhere you’ve never been to before and in fog/rain. In the Irish Republic things are much simpler thanks to their decision to consistently place the Irish version above the English – at least you always know where to look.

2) Regional TV.
I’m not talking about regional news – we all have that. I’m talking about the random programmes you get in the devolved nations. Like Pobol y Cwm (Wales’ long-running Welsh language soap opera), or, if you’re in Northern Ireland, The Folks on the Hill, a satirical cartoon about Northern Irish politics. (Yes, that is as fun as it sounds.) These may just sound like interesting, regional novelties, but the problem is that they wreak havoc with the tv schedule.

This evening, following a day spent travelling for 12 hours, all I wanted to do was to watch the QI Christmas special and the last two episodes of Gavin & Stacey (in preparation for their Christmas special). According to the Guardian, this would be BBC 1’s line up from 9pm. Yet, on BBC 1 was some weird comedy show involving people with Belfast accents. On checking the Northern Irish Radio Times, it turns out that those across the Irish Sea have to wait until late at night to watch what’s primetime viewing for the mainland. No fair.

Still, thanks to the wondeful iplayer, I’ll simply remedy this situation as I lie in bed tomorrow morning on my first official lie-in of my holidays (despite having been off since Friday). That might make up slightly for the fact that, yet again, I’ve kicked off the holidays with a minging cold. Don’t give me sympathy – feel for my family who’ll have to put up with my annoying, hacking cough for the next few days.