Friday, 30 May 2008

Road Rant

Ireland - Day 9

We had a late start to the day since I had to spend time online and on the phone to sort out tickets to the American Football match at Wembley in October. I don't think I've ever planned anything five months in advance (except, maybe, for this trip) and it feels strange, yet oddly thrilling. I must try it again sometime.

Once I had finally managed to get it all sorted, we had to clear out of the campsite in record time. We were heading South West, which meant using the roads again. Tracey has something to say on the subject...

Roads and Yellow Houses

I know the state of the roads has already come up but it deserves at least another mention.

These are the worst roads I have encountered since being on a rubbly track in Crete which led to a remote yoga retreat next to a beach and had the decency not to claim to be a road. It certainly didn’t have the audacity to have a name or a number, like ooh, N71 for example.

Driving on these roads is a strain, on our nerves and probably on the hitch on our trailer. I keep wondering what condition our crockery will be in when we arrive. Today our kitchen towel had completely unrolled itself.

There are holes and bumps and along the nearside edges there are no edges, there is more of an unpredictable serrated effect. There is often a sort of gully roughly where your nearside wheels go, which seems to be quite simply a collapsing of the tarmac into an insufficient foundation. The surface is a grey-coloured patchwork of uneven repairs, except for one area today which had been skimmed with fresh tarmac whilst leaving the undulations in place beneath.

I have seen cars on the opposite side bouncing up and down towards us like a pimped set of boy-racer wheels only to realise that they are a perfectly un-pimped family car simply surfing the asphalt waves.

We enjoyed a beautifully smooth, probably new stretch in the village of Leap, but it was all too brief. I’d go back just for the soothing smoothness but I would ruin our suspension on the way there.

Something I am appreciating along the way is the boldly painted houses, shops and bars. The more conservative choice which we’ve seen everywhere so far is somewhere between the yellowy vanilla ice cream of my childhood (not the modern posh stuff which is subtly off-white with tiny specks of vanilla seeds) and packet custard. The more eye-catching buildings have been deep, deep blue with even deeper blue window frames, or terracotta, or emerald green, or the sunniest of bright yellows, or PURPLE!!! It’s so strong and cheerful and fun and I love it.


If you thought Skibbereen were a race of tall, bipedal aliens intent on the destruction of mankind and whose arch enemy is Dr. Who, then, like me, you'd be wrong. Skibbereen claims to be the "Shopping Capital" of West Cork. I'll let you know about that one, but the chips are rubbish.

On another note, in celebration of the fact that we've had better phone and internet access in the past week than we did during two and a half months in South West England, I've uploaded some photos to the website from the trip so far. If anybody would like to know more about any of them, comment here or drop us a line via the Profile page.

Enjoy the views.


Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A load of old Blarney.

Ireland - Day 6

We took the not-so-short trip to Blarney; it felt much longer than the 75 miles it actually was. This brings two details regarding towing a trailer in Ireland to the fore.

Firstly, there aren’t a huge number of caravan sites. The Irish Caravan and Camping Council produces an excellent guide to their member sites, but it is quite a short book. There isn’t a lot of choice when you’re looking for a site. There is nothing like the UK’s two main clubs or their certified sites and locations.

Secondly, have you heard the stories about how bad the Irish roads are? They’re true. There is a new main road running from Dublin to Cork - we used a short section of it the other day on our trip to Cashel and it was the sweetest drive I have ever done. The section from Cahir to Cork is so new that not only is it not on the sat-nav, it isn’t in the 2008 road atlas and, most importantly, it is so new that it isn’t open yet. The road we had to take was fine, for the most part, but there were sections of it that wouldn’t have been out of place as a driveway to a farmyard. It was a slow journey. It is entirely possible that the roads are in that state simply because nobody knows! There’s nobody there! We drove for miles and didn’t see a soul. Irish roads are really, really quiet. Traffic-wise, that is. There’s plenty of noise from the suspension.

Still, we eventually arrived in the right number of pieces in Blarney and with enough time left in the afternoon, we thought we’d better go and have a look at the old stone to see what all the fuss was about.

It’s 10 Euros to get in. I don’t suppose it is a huge amount (about £8.20), but it immediately makes you aware that you’re going to be looking at a tourist attraction, not a piece of cultural history.

Having said that, Blarney castle itself is brilliant. There is everything you might want from a ruined castle.

There are a couple of short caves under the foundations, rooms and passages aplenty, and one of the narrowest spiral stone stairs I have ever had to climb. It seems to have been some sort of Rite-of-Passage for the local youth of recent times to leave their mark on the site. I have never seen so much graffiti outside a city centre. In a way, it adds to the charm.

The Blarney Stone itself is, of course, at the top of the castle.

It is a long, winding but rewarding climb. The view from the top would be, on a clear day, excellent. We got drizzled on. Up there were Chalk and Cheese, a couple of Irish guys who’s job it is to a) make sure you don’t kill yourself trying to kiss the stone, and b) take your picture while you’re doing it in order to screw another 10 Euros out of you for a print.

Chalk (not his real name), a tall, skinny guy who talks so fast that he is completely incomprehensible, stands ready with the camera button. Cheese (whose name has been changed to protect my ignorance) is a good head shorter and both talks and moves slowly enough to be measured on a geological time scale. His job, reassuringly, is to stop you falling. The actual act of kissing the stone isn’t a dignified affair. Lying on your back on a range of plastic mats and grubby cushions from a student flat, you have to grab the bars and lean back over the abyss while Cheese holds on to your waist. I’m sure that I would hit the ground 83 feet below before he would even notice. To be fair, they were a couple of really nice guys who have to spend all day at the top of a castle, open to the elements, rain or shine, and do the same things time after time with excited tourists. I think I’d probably end up throwing someone off, or at least letting go at the wrong moment.

The grounds of the castle are well tended and laid out with a marked trail leading through a series of delightful rock formations crassly turned into pseudo pagan glades and grottos. Very pretty, just don’t believe the blarney.

Day – 7

We took the bus to Cork. It left on time and arrived on time, possibly something to do with the amount of traffic on the road.

Cork is Ireland’s third city, and we were delighted to be among civilization. We spent several happy hours just wandering around, drinking in the sights and smells. The English Market is one of the best indoor markets I have ever seen. There is everything you might need for your shopping list, and it is a bustling, noisy arena for local produce.

We took lunch at the CafĂ© Paradiso, one of Irelands best vegetarian restaurants. Stunning. If you are a veggie, go there. If you aren’t, go there too and learn what fantastic vegetarian food is like.

On the North side of the city, in the Shandon area, is the gloriously quaint Butter Museum.

It charts the history of one of Corks greatest exports – you guessed it, butter. In fact Cork had the world’s largest market, employing strict and complex systems of grading and inspection, ensuring quality control almost unheard in other commodities of the time. The time was 1769. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when new technologies meant foreign markets could enjoy their own butter (thanks to refrigeration) that the Cork market fell into decline. It closed in 1924. The museum, as well as charting the history of the market, houses a collection of butterobilia (for want of a better word) from the ages. Bog butter, anyone?
Just along the road from the Butter Market is St. Anne’s church and its famous Shandon Steeple. This tower houses four clocks, one on each face. It used to be known as the “Four-Faced Liar” since each clock told a different time. Sadly, somebody has fixed that now. Still, for 6 euro you can climb the steps and ring the bells. Not just pull a rope or hit a hammer or anything so mundane; you can actually play a tune! I fancied having a go, but as we walked up the hill some enterprising soul was having a good go at “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead.” I couldn’t follow that.

We finished the day with a pint of Beamish. Guinness is a dirty word here – Beamish is brewed in Cork.

Day – 8

We drove down to the coast to have a look at Kinsale. We had read (and been told) that Kinsale is the gastronomic capital of the South. It might be if you eat meat and fish, but there wasn’t much to recommend it to a couple of veggies. Since we were there, we took the opportunity to explore.

Kinsale has seen more that its fair share of events, and for such a small town, some very significant things have happened there. Desmond Castle was built around the turn of the 16th century and saw action as a Customs House, a gunpowder store (when it was occupied by the Spanish in 1601), a jail (for French and American prisoners), a workhouse, a civil defense training post and, most recently, the International Wine Museum. Who knew that Hennessy Cognac was made by an Irishman?

According to some historians, the battle in 1601 was the most important one in Irish history. In 1600, the fight against Queen Elizabeth’s attempt to re-conquer Ireland was going well – two Northern chieftains, Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell had managed to regain much of the North from the English crown. O’Neill had support from the Pope and the Spanish king who sent a fleet which landed at Kinsale in October, 1601. The Northern chieftains moved south to join forces. The Battle of Kinsale was the last great Irish offensive against English rule. The defeat of the Irish is attributed to lack of support from the southern Gaelic chieftains and poor planning between the Spanish and Irish forces. This defeat allowed the complete re-conquest of Ireland by the English crown. Catholics, incidently, were banned from the town for 100 years following the defeat.

On the 7th of May, 1915, the RMS Lusitania was on its way from New York to London when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast at Kinsale. 1,198 lives were lost, 120 of them American. There is a mass grave of victims in Kinsale, and the town museum (a 17th century courthouse) shows relics from the wreck.

2km from Kinsale is the fabulous Charles Fort.

This is one of the best preserved 17th century star-shaped forts in Europe. Originally built in 1681 to bolster coastal defences, it was in service until the British withdrew in 1921 when the Irish Free State was set up. To give you an idea of its strength, it was put under siege by Williamite forces in 1690. Where (nearly 100 years earlier) Percy had taken Cahir in two days with only two canon, it took the Williamites 13 days, including five days of continual bombardment with six 24-pounders and two mortars.

Most of the buildings within the fort are now ruins, but there is enough there, including two exhibitions, to give a good idea of what a soldiers life was like. In fact, it is a playground of ruins. I spent a happy hour just wandering and snapping.


Monday, 26 May 2008

Castle, Cathedral and Cut Glass.

Ireland – Day 4

Cahir Castle is one of Irelands largest and best-preserved fortresses. Situated on a rocky island in the River Suir (pronounced Shoo-er not soo-er; people get offended if you think they live on the sewer), it is a formidable fortification. Connor O’Brien built the first structure in 1142 but after the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 it started its growth into what is there today. Like everything else around here, it was handed to the Butler family in 1375 and they renovated and expanded the site throughout the 15th and 16th century. There is a brilliant diorama in one of the chambers in the keep, which depicts the attack by Percy (the favourite of Elizabeth the 1st) during his quest to bring the Irish into line with the throne. There are hundreds of tiny 15mm scale soldiers swarming over a table at least ten feet long by six feet wide. Wonderful. The “siege” was something of a walk-over. Percy turned up with two and a half thousand troops, about three hundred horse and with only two cannon, he set up camp on the Friday night. It was all over by Sunday evening, and the Butler’s of the time escaped down the river. Despite his romp to victory here, Percy bungled the rest of his quest in Ireland and ended up losing his head. When Cromwell turned up in 1650, the castle was handed over without a fight. Because of its size and solidity (and hence its possible future usefulness), it escaped Cromwell’s usual “slash and burn” technique, and so is still relatively complete today (it still has a working portcullis). I guess the old Butlers must have done something right, because the castle stayed in the family until it was passed to the state in 1964. This is the same line of Butlers who built the Swiss Cottage.

About ten miles North of Cahir is the impressive limestone outcrop answering to the name of “The Rock of Cashel.”

The town is not much to speak of but it has more than its fair share of old ruins. There is Hore Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian monastery just to the North, with a 12th century castle (now a hotel) and a 13th century Dominican Friary in the town. The most impressive of all, however, is the collection of ecclesiastical remains on the rock itself. The name Cashel is an anglicised version of the Gaelic word Caiseal meaning Fortress. Despite there having been no military structure there for nearly a thousand years, it’s easy to see how it got its name (which, luckily for us is actually pronounced Cash-el). The sturdy stone wall rings four distinct, yet connected buildings - a complete round tower, a roofless abbey, a 15th century dormitory (where the choir lived) and a fabulous 12th century chapel.

The history of the rock goes back to the 4th century when it was chosen as the base for the invading Eoghanachta, a Welsh tribe who went on to conquer the whole area and became the kings of Munster. Legend says that St Patrick visited the rock in 450 and baptized the king, Oengus mac Nad Froich, stabbing him in the foot with his mitre in the process. Apparently the king didn’t complain, he just thought it was part of the ceremony! Brian Boru, one of Irelands greatest kings took the rock in the 10th century, and a little later in 1101, king Murtagh O’Brien handed the rock over to the church. This was a political gesture to curry favour with the powerful clergy and to stop the feud over possession of the Rock, which still ran with the Eoghanachta (who had now, mercifully, changed their name to MacCarthy).

The earliest building on the Rock is the 11th or 12th century round tower. These are apparently very common in Ireland, but this is an impressive and complete example. It stands 28m (92 ft) tall and, as is typical, has the door 3.5 m above the ground! They were used as look-out posts, bell towers and places of refuge. Apparently, the brothers of the church could climb up the wooden or rope ladder into the tower and pull the ladder up behind them. There are four floors, each reached by another ladder, which could also be pulled up. The flaw in the theory is that once an attacker has managed to get a ladder for himself, he could easily break down the door and set fire to the wooden floors inside. Still, it’s an impressive thing.

Cormac’s chapel is probably Irelands first Romanesque church. Dating from 1127, it is small by any standards, but it is virtually complete, with three floors and some staggering sculptural work inside. There are vestigial remains of 12th century frescoes on the walls which are undergoing restorative work. There isn’t a lot left, but what is there is still bright and vibrant with colour.

The lovingly restored 15th century Hall of the Vicars Choral once housed the cathedral choir and it is believed that this is the only such building in Ireland. Choristers were not necessarily clergy, but were simply local peasants who had a good voice. They lived in relative comfort here, though it was another 100 years before anybody put a fireplace in. The building now houses the ticket office and exhibitions. In the cellar is the original 12th century St Patrick’s Cross – the one outside is a replica. It was moved here after it was struck by lightning and a bit fell off.

The Cathedral was knocked up in the 13th century and is a massive gothic affair. It dwarfs even the round tower and despite being a ruin, is still impressive. Curiously, half of the Western nave disappeared in the 15th century when the Bishops House was built over it. This itself is a fortified, well defended structure with easily guarded entrances and murder-holes aplenty. In the Eastern arm lies the tomb of the notorious Bishop Miller Macgrath. This was the man who, in the 16th century, managed to be both the Catholic and Protestant bishops at the SAME TIME. A good trick, you’d think, but he managed to pull it off for NINE YEARS! He married twice and amassed a personal fortune. Even his tomb carries a story. Apparently, he saw this carved sarcophagus on the grave of an earlier bishop, took a fancy to it and left instructions that it should be removed and put over his remains instead. What a guy.

The whole thing came to an end in 1647 when Cromwell paid a visit on his Grand Tour of Destruction. The whole town took sanctuary in the cathedral, and when they wouldn’t come out, Cromwell attacked. Allegedly, the doors were so strong that the attackers had to come in through the windows. All 3,000 occupants were massacred and the cathedral torched.

The grounds are still sanctified, and locals carry the rights for burial.

Ireland – Day 5

We re-traced our steps a little for a quick visit to Waterford. There were two things I wanted to look at – the 13th century Reginald’s Tower and, of course, the Waterford Crystal factory. I’m not a big fan of cut glass, but I thought it might be worth a visit. It turned out to be brilliant!

Waterford was the first place to be re-occupied when the Vikings returned in 914 and the invading force was led by Regnal, grandson of Ivor the Boneless (you couldn’t make this stuff up). He built a tower overlooking a strategic point on the River Suir, and the current structure stands on its foundations. Erected in 1185 with 3m (10ft) thick walls, it was extended (upwards) in the 15th century and saw action as a watch tower, military store, prison, and most importantly, a mint. Much of Irelands coinage was minted there for centuries. Minting was a strictly controlled job, with heavy penalties for messing up. One Keeper of the Irish Mint, Germyn Lynch, was sacked five times for minting underweight coins. Somehow, Edward IV always gave him his job back.
The term “Pound Sterling” was introduced into Ireland by King John in 1205. One Pound was, literally, a pound weight of silver, which was divided into 240 pennies. The 240 pennies to the pound ratio stayed with us for nearly 800 years until decimalisation in the early 70’s. Reginald’s Tower is said to be the oldest civic, urban building in Ireland and the first Irish building to use mortar in its construction. They call it mortar, but how they found that a concoction of blood, lime, fur and mud could glue bricks together will, hopefully, remain a mystery.

The Waterford Crystal factory is an ugly building by any measure, and it houses some of the least appealing works of “art” I have ever seen (take “Cinderella’s Carriage.” Please – it’s yours for 22,637.50 Euro!). I guess I just don’t like the stuff, but there is certainly no denying the craftsmanship involved. Despite it being a Sunday, and despite Munster (the region of Ireland we are in) winning the Rugby European Cup the day before, there were a handful of people manning the various posts so we could watch the process from beginning to end.

There is a five-year apprenticeship for a cutter, with a minimum of another three years before they can become a Master. Bearing in mind that there is very strict quality control at every stage (carried out by Masters), and that a single wrong cut can ruin a piece, it is no surprise that there is such a long training. The cutters are paid by the piece, working for two or three hours on a single bowl for example, so there is a big incentive to get it right. Long-serving, very experienced masters can get to work on individual pieces (trophies, for instance), spending weeks on one piece of glass.

The picture here is of me grinning like an idiot, holding next years “other” SuperBowl trophy! (It is the one presented to the home city of the winning team). The finished article is worth $30,000. Gulp.

Crystal has been made in Waterford since 1783, and they now make glass for the world, including trophies for most major sporting events and even the giant ball at One Time Square in New York!

The sculpture here was made in memory of the fire fighters and police of New York city who lost their lives on 9/11. It took three months to make and is valued at $70,000.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

"It's a long way to..."

It turns out it was only 86 miles.

We’re actually camped in a delightful site about 15 miles from Tipperary. It’s a working apple farm called, prosaically, “The Apple," with about 15 pitches nestled between the trees. The welcome was one of the warmest we have received, and a free bottle of their home-pressed, award winning apple juice was a nice touch. And probably the best apple juice I have ever tasted!

The journey here was interesting. Despite all the things which make Ireland so similar to the UK, there are a world of differences, and we feel that we are most definitely in a foreign country. Take driving, for instance. The roads were, for the most part, fairly deserted. The first section of main road we traveled on was in excellent condition – much better than most British A roads. There is, however, a curious yellow dotted line running along the outside of the lane, creating something similar to a hard shoulder. Sometimes it was as wide as the main carriageway, at others it was barely wide enough for a cycle lane. The thing is, we never came across any directions about what is was actually for. It seems that there is an unspoken rule that slow vehicles (like us) plonk themselves in this lane so that everything else can get past them. We saw tractors and lorries happily scooting along, straddling this dotted line, so we joined in when we could. It seemed like a good choice, since almost everyone who passed us (and there weren’t that many since the roads were empty anyway) waved or flashed a thank-you. At least I think that’s what it was. There were a startling number of drivers who thought it was OK to pull out directly in front of us and accelerate very slowly. I don’t think they realized how close they came to having 5 tonnes of us (and 23 tonnes of the truck behind us) up their backside. Still, we know that the over-run brakes on the trailer work!

The language is much more of a barrier than we expected. It’s not that people don’t speak English – everybody does. It’s just that it’s difficult to place ones self in the world when you can’t pronounce the name of it. Take where we are now, for instance. The welcome sign says it calls itself Cahir. All road signs in Ireland are bilingual, so it also has the name An Cathair. Add to this that the Ordnance Survey of Ireland map has different spellings for almost every town (in this case Caher) and you can see our problem. In fact it is actually pronounced “Care,” and thus we’re on a hiding-to-nothing.

Still, here we are, however it’s pronounced, and once we were set up and had had a quick lunch, we headed straight out again to take in a local sight. This is where we found some roads that weren’t quite so good, in fact they were barely more than a collection of pot-holes held together by tarmac. Still, we made it to the Swiss Cottage, a delightful 19th century Cottage Orme – a folly built by John Nash for the local landowners, the Butler family, to pretend to be peasants in. It is a beautifully restored, thatched, two-up-and-two-down cottage. Despite the upstairs being reasonably normal (two quite large bedrooms) downstairs differs from the normal idea of a cottage in that the two-down were a Tea Room and a Music Room. No kitchen, of course, because there is a hidden basement where the servants rustled up the champagne and strawberries. Completely self-indulgent, but apparently quite popular among the landed gentry of the time, and a very pretty thing it is. It has been lovingly restored by the imaginatively titled Office of Public Works at the cost of half a million Euros. The job has been done so well that it looks like it was only built a couple of years ago. Sadly, no cameras area allowed, but there’s a link here ( for anyone interested.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Still there?

Here's a funny thing...

We've been touring the South West of England for over three months, and not once did we find a campsite where we could get internet access. Yesterday we took the three and a half hour crossing to Ireland, and the first campsite we stop in has wireless broadband!

I'm not going to post a monster, three-months-worth of blog here, because a) it's not really relevant any more, b) it'll bore the pants off you, and c) I can't remember that far back. So we'll just try to fill you in with the occasional flash-back when something crops up.

Instead, we'll start here with the Ireland trip...

It's funny how it seemed to take all day from leaving the campsite in St. David's (South Wales), driving to the ferry port at Fishguard, sailing to Rosslare and driving on to the campsite here in St. Margarets. It took eight hours and we only ended up 85 miles from where we started! But we're in a foreign country! OK, they still speak English (apart from the taxi driver last night, who spoke Venusian or something similar. It could have been English, but not as we know it), but it feels "foreign." The road signs and bill-boards are all different. The shops and bars have different faces.  Even the weather is slightly different.  Today we were blessed with a good dose of "Wexford Sunshine," very similar to the Keswick variety, but with a Gaelic accent.

The first pint of Guinness has been drunk (and very nice it was too) in a little pub/restaurant which looked like it had used up the national stock of green paint.  Floor, ceiling and everything in between was green.  It was, apparently, one of Ireland's great seafood restaurants, but since we arrived late and don't eat seafood, I can't vouch for the accolade.  Still, the stout was good, and not quite the most expensive pint ever.  The strong Euro might put the kibosh on our quest to find the perfect ale - £3.50 a pint will hurt the budget after a few weeks.  Still, Diesel is cheap - the same price in Euros as it was in pounds yesterday- just over a quid a litre.

That's a good thing - we're off to Tipperary tomorrow.  Allegedly it's quite far.