The Tour pt 5 - Friends reunited

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.

Until then……

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The Tour pt 4 – just a quick one…

Yep, just when you thought it was safe to go back to your inbox…

We are in Ireland – a little village called Redcross, in County Wicklow approaching the last of our three nights here. It won’t surprise you to know that the area is stunningly beautiful (Avoca, the village where Ballykissangel was filmed is just up the road) and that, just for a change, it’s been raining. The village itself is very small, just two pubs, including the one on site and a take away and general stores. It is very quaint, picturesque and very quiet. The site itself is fine – large spacious pitches, an adults only area  and the ability to hook up directly to the mains water if you have the necessary kit – which we don’t – not yet anyway.

Anyhow, as usual going back briefly, the journey from Freshwater to the ferry port at Fishguard was fine after probably the smoothest hitch-up we’ve done to date. Patsy’s home for the next few hours would be deep in the bowels of the ferry on the lorry deck right at the front on the up slope. Hopefully her dignity would be preserved amongst all those macho lorries…

The crossing itself was ok, if a little lively in places, the predicted forecast of moderate seas changing to moderate to rough soon after we boarded was of no surprise. Free internet was offered on board, somewhat countered by the extortionate price for coffee. The foray into Tesco’s just outside the port for sarnies and crisps prior to boarding had proved worthwhile.

The crossing took half an hour longer than expected, so it was nearly seven pm by the time we were on the road to Redcross. The journey was uneventful although a little longer than we would have preferred. We also made the mistake of not paying full attention to the directions supplied by the site. Whilst the scenery on the long winding road approaching the village was beautiful in the fading light, seeing Patsy bounce around like Zebedee in the rear view mirrors wasn’t.

Getting her pitched once we arrived was a little problematic. The pin on the jockey wheel broke again as soon as we tried to lower it. Mercifully we were still able to get the van positioned and a further temporary fix would follow. One of the mains circuits had tripped on hook up to the electric supply and the water pump was being bloody awkward too, all made worse by the fact they were by now working in darkness. Eventually, after some gentle coaxing (yeah right!) everything began to behave. Deciding that a cuppa just wouldn’t cut it we headed first to the take away and then, yes, you’ve guessed it, to the pub!

It was pretty quiet in there with just two locals propping up the bar. We had only intended to have a couple but, well, best laid plans and all that. Anyway it turned into a good night. The take away owner, who had been so grateful for our patronage earlier on what was a very quiet night appeared and promptly spent the nights takings. There was a lot of moaning going on about the state of Ireland and it’s dire financial situation, but  that  didn’t seem to stop the till ringing at regular intervals. Funny that.

We haven’t done an awful lot of sightseeing – you don't have to travel far for scenery as I’ve already said. We’ve had a look around the little towns of Wicklow and Arklow, with a pretty but sometimes hairy drive along the coast in-between the two. Patsy, the dirty cow has had a wash – ok, technically, because of the rain she’s had several but this particular one was with shampoo as well. What we hope is a more permanent fix on the jockey wheel this time has been made. Jessie was topped up with what, for us, was relatively cheap diesel. We have even used the on board shower for the first time – the facilities on site are nothing less than spotless but they do have a little bit of cheek in charging extra to use the showers. Anyway, it worked fine and the hot water tank easily supplies enough hot water for two showers.

Right, an early start tomorrow, as we are heading north to Downpatrick – about 150 or so miles away. Our friend Lawrence is at home visiting family and has very kindly allowed us to pitch on his yard for a week. We have both been to Northern Ireland before, many years ago on a piss-up masquerading loosely as a retail trading seminar but didn’t get to do any proper sightseeing, so have lots lined up.

Ok, time to see if the pub’s open to use their wifi…..

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The Tour pt 3 – A large erection – eventually!

Yeah, I thought that might get your attention, and I will explain fully a bit later.

At time of typing we are currently on the Caravan Club site by the coast at Freshwater East in deepest Pembrokeshire. It is a lovely site in a beautiful location with all the facilities you would expect of club sites. We’ve been to two Caravan Club sites(including this one) so we are obviously experts. The site is down quite a steep hill, just two minutes walk away from the beach and sits in a bit of valley. There is no mobile phone reception and tv is only available through the in house loop with sockets at the mains hook up points. A long aerial lead is required and the shop will happily sell you an overpriced one. We decided to hang on and try and find one cheaper somewhere. Wifi is available though and that’s why you’ve got this.

Anyway, to get you up to date. Little of note happened on our last day In Cardiff until about midnight when I was awakened by  a loud hissing sound just outside the van. We got up to have a look and found a spent fire extinguisher lying at the side. Some fellow campers in a tent opposite also appeared. They had observed what appeared to be a large and extremely drunk ‘bunny rabbit’ shaped object staggering down the site road with said fire extinguisher, letting it off then lurching vaguely in the direction of the exit. Or perhaps that should be hopping. Anyway, satisfied that that was the end of the evenings entertainment we all went back to bed.

The one hundred mile or so journey from Cardiff over here to Freshwater East couldn’t have been easier. The traffic was light, the directions supplied by the Caravan Club book were excellent and we were sited and recharged with tea by just after midday. The repairs to Patsy – the jockey wheel by us and the lights by the second coming from Green Flag had lasted. All was well.

With tannin levels restored it was time to try out the awning. We unpacked all the poles and laid them out as advised by the manufacturer. The awning was unfolded and fed into the channel on the caravan. It was stiff and stubborn but yielded eventually (Hmm, I know someone like that). We stood back and admired our handy work  - we had an erection! All good will evaporated however when we started positioning some of the poles. We had put the bloody thing on inside out! Much swearing and blaming ensued but eventually, with the instruction video consulted for the hundredth time and threats (or should that be promises) of divorce abated we stood back and admired our handiwork. It was standing upright of it’s own accord and was reasonably level but disappointment returned when we tried the tension pegs. The supplied ones were plastic and whilst ironically would have been fine for the sodden grass of Cardiff, were not meaty enough for the hard standing which were on now. With yet another item on the shopping list of caravanning essentials we packed it away again.

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All this erecting had brought on a thirst for a pint or two so we fired up Jessie and headed out of the site in search of a nice Welsh boozer. Just opposite the beach and only two minutes walk away was a holiday park, the centre of which was a bar which proudly proclaimed that it was welcoming of non-residents. Thinking that it would neither be a traditional pub, or more importantly have a decent pint we carried on. Three days or so later, and it seemed with half of Pembrokeshire's windy country roads traversed we had done a full circle. The only two likely looking boozers we passed were both shut so we trudged in to the holiday park bar. Well, the beer was nice and the barman friendly, although we had not got a true taste of Wales – the barman was from Yorkshire and the beer from Suffolk – Abbot Ale too – lovely.

Tuesday, and another nice day beckoned although the forecast for the coming days was not good. Sightseeing mode was selected and Tenby was first on the list. What a pretty place it was too. Quite empty now that the school holidays were over it was very pleasant to stroll around. We even spotted the backside of a Brighton & Hove coach protruding from behind a hotel. Our walk took us around past the two lifeboat stations, one of which was now a private residence. The lifeboat station proper was open and we went and had a look. The boat itself was at the top of the ramp ready for action. I stood reading the facts and figures on the boat. It holds over a thousand gallons of fuel and returns something like three gallons to the mile. Ouch! We think we’ve got problems!

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Next up was Saundersfoot and another though smaller picture postcard seaside resort. Heading inland then and across to Pembroke and it’s neighbour Pembroke Dock. Now, if Tenby and it’s neighbours looked to be doing well, less could be said of these two places. Closed shops and boarded up pubs told a different story. I did manage to procure some aerial cable cheap though, and we topped up with what has been the cheapest fuel of the trip so far. Oh, and a skipping rope. One thing doing them bloody parcels were good for was keeping the weight off. With no regular exercise (well, ok, not quite none!) something had to be done. Another spare tyre was not required.

P4160028 Another late afternoon and our second attempt at finding a true Welsh pub.  We were a little luckier this time – a choice of three local real ales was on offer and we picked one. It was delicious, but we were going to have to hunt a bit further – the governor was from Hertfordshire and he said most of his regulars were English too – either holiday makers or neighbours.

‘They’ had said the weather was going to turn nasty and it did. It was raining when we left the pub and during the evening the wind got worse. We had an early night but by midnight we were both awake again as the wind and rain lashed poor old Patsy. It was bloody noisy and a little unsettling too as Pasty seemed to shift on her haunches. We had a cuppa at about three having had virtually no sleep in between. It was gone four before the noise had subsided enough for us to fall asleep again.17-04-12 (5)

We woke this morning to bright sunshine  although the wind was still heavy. Rain was promised for later (how unusual) so we headed out again, this time west, to St Davids which bears the honour of being Britain's smallest city. Eschewing the tourist priced coffee in St Davids we climbed aboard Jessie again and pointed her nose in the direction of Whitesands. What appeared before us was a beautiful if empty expanse of beach. I have no idea of the price of coffee here as they wanted the national debt for the privilege of parking in the one and only place to park. We turned tail and carried on.

We paused at Trevine for a lovely pot of tea and toasted tea cake then called into Fishguard from where, weather permitting, we will be catching the ferry to Ireland tomorrow. We had considered calling in to Pembroke castle on the way back but were conscious that with another rough night forecast we ought to try and get some shut eye. And I had a blog to write.

So, there we are. Our time in South Wales is nearly at and end but have really enjoyed it. There is so much more we could have done of course; the Mumbles and Gower Peninsula to name but two. But there will always be another time. Stand by for Part 4 from Ireland – where hopefully we’ll have a more successful er, erection.

Until then.

The Tour pt 2 – What’s Occurring….

Saturday 14th April and still in Cardiff and after the dodgy start it’s been going rather well.

The chap from Green Flag sorted out the issue with the lights. One of the tow bar relays in the control unit in the boot of the car had failed. I will still need to get the unit replaced when we get home but the repair should last. Whilst out and about we also procured a bag of nails that will serve as replacements for the jockey wheel pin until we get home, so hopefully now we’re all set for the rest of the trip.

So, what has been occurring? Well, fans of Gavin & Stacey on the BBC will deduce correctly that we’ve been down to Barry Island. Just half an hour out of Cardiff on the train it is a really pleasant little seaside resort with beautiful crescent shaped beach and a lovely innocent charm. So, we had an enjoyable time in Barry….. and yes, wait for it – he liked it too!

We’ve done the local hop on/hop off bus tour of the city. We always look out for these as they can give you a good overview of the area and help you to get your bearings. They can also be a source of fascinating information, for example, the fact the the first million pound cheque was reputedly signed here – for the supply of coal to the US Navy. More interestingly, the Welsh flag is the first in the world to feature a design based on someone's mother-in-law. Think about it….

One morning was spent down in Cardiff Bay – the redeveloped docks area – and what a great job they have done of it too. In amongst it all remains the old red brick Victorian pierhead building. So well restored and preserved. Fan’s of Torchwood will recognise the chrome tower in the middle. BBC Wales produced both Torchwood and Gavin & Stacey and have a huge purpose built facility here. The Doctor Who experience  (another BBC Wales production) is due to open this summer.

Yesterday we headed further afield and north, first to the Big Pit at Blaenavon, filling up with diesel on the way. Doing the sums showed that we only got twenty eight to the gallon on the run west on Tuesday. I had been hoping and expecting a little more considering the price of fuel and the amount we are likely to get through on this trip. A note to our friends in the US - we are now paying close to eleven dollars a gallon! You think you’ve got problems.

However, it was very windy on Tuesday which may account for the poor consumption. Patsy is also quite a bit heavier than on our jaunt to Crystal Palace. As well as the extra bit’s and bobs likely to be needed for a longer trip – including  a new full size awning which is still in the box – Patsy is carrying more booze than an off licence. We are working hard to reduce this though!

Anyway, back to the Big Pit and what a great experience. You get kitted up with a hard hat and battery pack and light just like the miners would have and descend in to the pit 90 metres below. Sadly, no ‘dry cell’ powered items are allowed in the pit so we weren't able to take any photos. However, an ex miner gives a fascinating insight in to what it was like to work down there and the hard hat was essential as I found out several times. At the end of the tour you get introduced to two canaries – no longer used of course but kept for prosperity – and named Maggie & Arthur. Apparently they get on really well…

Next up was a drive up from the national park to Brecon and a stop for lunch. The scenery here was stunning and there’s so little traffic around which was lovely. In the afternoon we headed back south via a different though no less scenic route. The plan was to call in at Penderyn and take a tour of the local distillery. Penderyn make a very fine whisky but all the remaining tours for the day were full so we didn’t get a chance to sample any.

Friday night and our night ‘out on the town’ and check out a couple of Cardiff’s gay bars. Both pleasant enough and with differing clientele but with the usual banging happy house music attempting to drown out all conversation. It' seemed quiet everywhere for a Friday night but then we remembered that ‘Steps’ were on at the local arena. Indeed as we crossed from one bar to another, the gig finished and several thousand happy revellers spilled out on to the streets. Now, they’re not really to my taste – a bit to cheesy even for me – and should be strung up for butchering the all time classic that is ‘Tragedy’ – but they were clearly very popular.

So, our time in Cardiff is nearly at an end. It’s been very enjoyable and is a lovely clean city to visit. The caravan site is fine and in a great location. It is a municipal site rather than a club one so the facilities are slightly different – older but still clean and tidy. You don’t get a key to the shower and toilet block but a code for the keypad on the door instead. Trev is not great at remembering numbers so I wrote the number down on the back of one of my ‘A Load of Nonsense’ ‘business’ cards for him. When he came back from his first visit he said he had left the card in there in the hope that someone would pick it up and get on line and read the blog. So, you heard it here first – I’ve been reduced to advertising in men’s toilets…..

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The Tour pt 1 – Wales & woes

Where are we? Well Cardiff, almost bang in the middle of the city centre, just along from the castle and cricket ground. It’s Wednesday 11th April and at the time of typing are awaiting a second visit from Green Flag to hopefully sort out  an issue we had with the caravan road lights on the way here, a problem which was made worse by the first visit yesterday!
Anyway, I’ll get you up to date with what's happened in-between. It’s been erm, fun.
We were due to leave Monday at midnight. At about two hundred miles and towing it was estimated it would take about five hours driving. The idea was to get the bulk of the journey done and then pull up just outside Cardiff for a stop and a kip. This way, we could take our time and not be in anybody’s way.
Well, the weather forecast proved to be correct, but with the strong winds starting to subside a little after 1am we headed outside to hitch up. We had manoeuvred the van on to the road earlier in the evening in the hope of making as little noise as possible when we left.
We got the van hitched fairly easily but, owing to the slope and some additional weight both in the van and car, the jockey wheel was wedged between the road and the front of the A-frame. We started to wind the jockey wheel down again to reposition it when the winding handle became detached from the shaft. The locking pin had sheared off, whether due to age or too much brawn and not enough brain, I don't know. This meant that the wheel could not be lowered or raised when siting or manoeuvring the van, neither could it be stowed safely when being towed.
The immediate thought was that the trip would have to be delayed whilst we got someone out in the morning to fix it. However, eventually and with a lot of broken drill bits and swearing we managed to fashion a temporary repair. We had no idea how long the repair would last but at least we could get going.
It was almost exactly 3am when we pulled away with Trev driving the first leg. We swapped over at Reading services when another problem became apparent – the lights on the left hand side of the van had gone out. FFS! Having checked that we still had indicators and brake lights though we decided to carry on.
It was already daylight when we crossed the bridge in to Wales and handed over six quid for the privilege then had a brief stop at Magor services for the usual morning ablutions. Note for the future, if you do ever stop here – take your own loo roll!
We arrived in Cardiff soon after 8.30 am having abandoned the idea of stopping for a kip. The site was easy to find and despite being other 3 hours early, the warden helpfully located a pitch for us.
The moment of truth was upon us – would the repair hold. No is the simple answer. Our temporary pin broke as soon as the handle was turned to lower the wheel and unhitch the car. Then it started raining. Properly. Things weren't going well.
The shower soon passed though and I marched back to site office in search of a yellow pages. In the meantime our ‘neighbours’ - chap and his wife who were leaving came over to see what the problem was. In no time at all he had delved in to his tool box and found and fitted a suitable pin. Much to our relief we were able to site the van and get the kettle on.
Later that afternoon I called Green Flag to get someone out to look at the electrics. He was a pleasant chap, eager to help but clearly auto electrics was not his thing. He went away promising a visit from an expert the following morning but not before ensuring that none of the caravan road lights now worked!
Dinner was delicious – cottage pie, in true Blue Peter style prepared earlier. The TV – an addition since our first trip  - to Crystal Palace – worked a treat.
But the wine worked even better……
Quick update – the Green Flag agent has been and made a temporary repair so at least we have full lights again. And it’s raining. Well, it is Wales!

Patsy rides again

Yep, we’re off again, this time on a slightly longer tour starting this Tuesday.

Firstly a welcome to Paul, Jo, Mary & Karen who have been added to the blog email list. Congratulations on signing up to the best cure for insomnia on the ‘net….

First port of call is Wales, home of beautiful countryside, lots of sheep, some good singers and apparently, according to my Welsh friends a team that can throw around a funny shaped ball rather well…

Cardiff will be the first stop, right in the city centre, near the cricket ground. We’ll check out Barry Island & Brecon Beacons by day, and venture on to ‘the scene’ at night.

Then it’s across to Pembrokeshire for a short stay at Freshwater East  and a chance to explore the South western tip before heading to Fishguard and on to the ferry across to Rosslare in Ireland

We ‘done’ most of the Republic a few years ago, so it’s just a few days in Wicklow, then we’ll be hauling Patsy up to the north, to Down Patrick for a week rendezvousing with a friend, pitching up in his yard for a week and exploring the northern coastline.

Then, another ferry, this time to Stranraer and the Scottish leg of the trip. No specific plans yet, but Edinburgh, some of the highlands and a distillery or two may be on the list. We’ve already done Glasgow, so will probably give it a miss this time.

Then we return to England. Again no specific route but the Lake District will most certainly be on the list, along with stops in Yorkshire and Staffordshire and a dart in to northern Wales to catch up with friends.

Then back to what was home, Cambridge to catch up with yet more friends before returning to what will hopefully be sunny Saltdean early to mid July.

And if all this goes well, in the autumn Patsy goes continental……