Me again, just when you thought you’d got away with it. It’s the morning of Thursday 26th April in a wet and cold Downpatrick, County Down in Northern Ireland. Our last full day before we throw ourselves - and Patsy - at the mercy of Stena Line again for the crossing from Belfast to Cairnryan for the start of the Scottish bit of the tour.
It has been cold but largely dry during or time here and it certainly hasn’t stopped us getting out and about, in fact for me it’s just been an excuse to wear more black.
So, what have we done? Well, first off, dear old Patsy has been deserted. We are pitched up in the yard of Lawrence’s Uncles old place which used to be the local dairy. Lawrence very kindly offered us the use of the house and we accepted. It seemed a little odd though on the first night in a proper bed – as if we’d bailed out at the first opportunity if you like. Still there its is. Lawrence’s Mum celebrated her birthday this week so we have joined the family for a number of meals, both in and out – the food at all has been delicious and the hospitality second to none.
Sightseeing? Yeah, we’ve done some of that too. On our first afternoon we went to see Downpatrick’s lovely Cathedral, supposedly the burial place of one Saint Patrick although no one is sure whether his remains are under the tombstone or the church itself. Others doubt that he is here at all.
We had a day in Belfast doing ‘our usual’ and boarding a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of the city. My only real memories of Belfast was from many years ago as a kid watching the nightly news when yet another bomb had gone off or riot had broken out and the only visitors then were camera crews and reporters.
Of course, much has changed since then and Belfast is a buzzing welcoming city, the weather (at least the day we were there) notwithstanding.
The tour started in the city centre (how odd) then headed out to the ‘Titanic Quarter’ a multi billion development including the newly opened Titanic Experience. We went past the famous Harland & Wolf shipyard - once the worlds biggest - with it’s two massive yellow cranes, named Samson & Goliath now standing sadly idle.
We went past the Belfast city airport, hardly a tourist attraction but, since being renamed Belfast ‘George Best’ Airport, an excuse for a little anecdote – over 300,000 people attended George Best’s funeral but, according to the tour guide, only about half of these were ex-girlfriends……..
Stormont was next up but not before aforementioned tour guide could impart his wit again. He advised us, as we approached and the arctic wind gusted over the open top bus that only the most hardy (or daft) sat upon the top deck of, that we would soon pass the house of the most optimistic man in Northern Ireland. We all assumed that he had had something to do with the peace process, bringing together Northern Irelands stubborn politicians and the like. It turned our however, that to earn this title, all he done was erect a swimming pool! I Tried to take a picture but by this time both hands and camera had frozen……
After a brief stop at Stormont, now Northern Irelands seat of Government and the place where the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1988, it was only fitting that the next stops would be where for so many years the ‘Troubles’ were centred. Shankhill Road first, a name I heard so many times on the tv all those years ago. This is a Protestant area of West Belfast – staunchly loyal to Britain and staying within the union. A very short distance away is Falls Rd, Catholic and Republican and wanting a united Ireland. The murals, such a part of the tv reports all those years ago are still about although some have been repainted and the more explicitly violent ones have been blacked out. The ‘Peace Wall’, dividing the two communities sadly still stands today.
Having now though almost completely frozen solid we left the bus in search of warmth and a much need toilet. Ena’s Cafe in Sandy Row – a ‘proddy’ area, we were advised which is probably just as well given our accents, was the venue of choice. Hot tea and delicious scrambled eggs did the trick – we ordered and paid the waitress being careful not to cut ourselves on her Belfast accent. I kid you not, it was so broad neither of us could understand a single bloody word she said! However, I think it was the same for her.
We walked back in to the town centre pausing for a pint at The Crown, one of Belfast’s famous old Victorian pubs, then later on a second one at another pub. Lawrence’s sister Charlene invited us for dinner and we had a lovely meal that evening as our bodies returned slowly to their correct temperature.
Yesterday, with the weathermen gleefully promising yet more of the wet stuff (hosepipe ban anyone?) we fired up Jessie and headed north, up through Belfast and along the Antrim coast. Beautiful scenery, tempered only slightly by the thunderous clouds and howling wind presented itself as we drove along. The undoubted highlight though was the Giants Causeway site - a stunning example of what nature can do and well worth a visit. The last tourist halt of the day was in Bushmills Distillery for a tour of the plant and a little snifter at the end. Central heating if you like and purely for medicinal purposes only of course.
We returned via an inland route stopping for a lovely late afternoon meal at Cookstown on the way. Some villages like to demonstrate their religious and political leanings to visitors and we passed through a number with kerbstones and lamp posts painted in red, white and blue. Union flags flying in gardens left you in no doubt where their loyalties lay.
So, that’s Northern Ireland almost done with – again, there is so much more to see, but it’s joined our long ‘to do again’ list and I’m sure we will be back. Great hospitality from Lawrence and his family has added to a great stay here. It’s added to the waistline too. Tea is just too wet apparently without an accompanying cake or bun – or two. Of course it would be rude to refuse. Talking of waistlines, the skipping rope mentioned in a previous blog has, so far, apart from a trial run remained in the draw.
Today is a ‘bits and bobs’ day, shopping and then getting Patsy ready for tomorrow. It’s only a short distance to the ferry terminal – 20 miles or so but we need to go through Belfast to get to it and our departure time of 11.30am means joining some of the morning rush hour.
Next up is Ayr, just for a couple of nights and not to far from the ferry terminal at Cairnryan – we want to get back to only towing on Sundays – it’s quieter on the roads, less stressful and we are less of a nuisance to other motorists that way. Then we will be hauling Patsy up to Loch Lomond for a weeks stay on what looks a lovely site right on the waters edge and hopefully some warmer weather and a chance of another erection – of the awning that is.