After my impromptu gig with my mate Ritchie in the Montague Arms on the Monday night and a good night’s sleep, I was up on the morning of Tuesday 5th June and wondering what to do with myself. I thought I might take a wander round Portadown which is a mere five miles away but, as I previously explained, is a bit of a pain to get to owing to the parlous state of public transport in the Province. I managed to get one of the infrequent buses and got off for a walk round and with no set plan as always.
I wandered along to the river and proved another one of my many travelling maxims namely that you can always find something new. I strolled down to the towpath (canal boats used to ply this stretch of the River Bann having come along the canal from Newry) and found the plaque you can see in the image indicating that there was a World War Two air raid shelter on this site.
I lived in and around Portadown for many years and never knew about this although I do slightly question the wisdom of putting an air raid shelter under such an obvious air target as the only bridge in a town with little else of potential value as one. In the event, I don’t think Portadown was ever bombed.
There has been a bridge on this site since 1630 so it would have been a bit of a shame, not to mention a complete nuisance, if the Germans had done away with it.
I decided to visit a few of the old hostelries round the town and started in Gary’s Bar just across the bridge. In truth I didn’t really drink in here too much when I lived locally as it had a bit of a reputation but it was exactly as I remembered it, very old-fashioned and all the better for it. A quick pint along with the obligatory bag of Tayto cheese and onion (chips for my North American friends) and it was time to move on.
Back over the bridge and the next place I came to was Schvargo, not Zhivago mind you, but Schvargo. It has obviously been fairly recently renovated and has quite modern inside with no attempt at a faux traditional look which I really do not like. I know there was always a pub on this site but try as I might, and even after a few days, I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called. There was only one other customer in there and he was buried in his newspaper but I did have a good chat with the barman who will feature again in a moment.
Onward ever onward and on up the main street (there is a bit of a hill), past the Cope Inn and down the alley into Joe Mac’s. Yes, you read that correctly and I did indeed walk past a pub. The reason for this is that whilst the Cope Inn and Joe Mac’s are physically separate I know they are both owned by the same man and are even painted in the same colour outside. They are basically just two halves of the same establishment. I was sitting enjoying my pint and reading the local morning newspaper when in walked the barman from Schvargo and it was clear from his demeanour that he was the owner which was subsequently confirmed to me by the young barman. We had a bit of a joke about him stalking me before he departed and I wondered about him owning three pubs so close to each other. He must be doing something right.
Out the door of Joe Mac’s and an “arduous hike” of at least ten paces landed me at the back door of another pub where I used to drink a bit. It is officially called The Bar now but I still think of as Jameson’s. It is a very sports themed place with all sorts of memorabilia on the walls. The image posted above hopefully gives some idea as there are not one but three pubs in it with the image taken from the shared “beer garden” / smoking area. The red wall in the left foreground is the back wall of Jameson’s, the beige building in the right middle ground is Joe Mac’s and the building in the background with the sloping roof and satellite dish is the Cope Inn. A man could do a reasonable pub crawl in the space of about 20 decent paces. That’s Northern Ireland for you.
As usual I fell to chatting with the two barmen and the very interesting guy that was sitting beside me at the bar and before I knew it I had managed to miss the last bus home. I believe I mentioned before how awful the public transport is to my village and the last bus on weekdays goes at 1740 which isn’t a lot of use. Still, no point in worrying about it and it gave me an opportunity for one last visit.
My final port of call on this little hostelry tour was the wonderful McConville’s. It has not been owned by the McConville family for many years although the name remains. I had been told earlier on in the day that it has been recently taken over again with the changes not being to everyone’s liking and consequent loss of custom in what used to be one of the busier pubs in town. I have to say that it was not overly busy when I went in and ordered a pint of Guinness which came up well-kept and well-served as I would have expected.
Whilst the new owners have changed some things such as the ranges of drink stocked there is thankfully much that they cannot change as the whole building is a listed building. For my non-British readers who may not understand this term it means that the building is protected by an order which prevents it from being altered without special permission from the relevant authorities. I am so glad that Mac’s as it is locally known is so protected as it really is a beauty of a building and so typical of traditional pubs of the 19th century. It is all wood panelled with tiles on the floor which would have once been covered in sawdust to soak up spilt drink, occasional blood and, er, saliva in the absence of spitoons and which gave rise to the old expression of a “spit on saw” meaning a working class pub.
Macs also boasts that most quaint of traditions, the snug. A snug is a small area off the bar with one table and a door where you could go to discuss things in private and there are several here. In days past, there would have been a bellpull in each one to summon a waiter so you did not even have to go to the bar to replenish supplies but these are long gone. It was in one of these snugs that I was once plied with too much Guinness and talked into “blacking up”, donning huge false breasts, a fright wig, grass skirt and more costume jewellery than you could wave a stick at to appear on stage in the annual pantomime (Robinson Crusoe) in the Town Hall taking the part of Wotta Woppa the Cannibal Queen.
I was a member of the wonderful Gateway Theatre Group which still exists but generally confined myself to set-building, scenery humping, stage management, lighting, sound, SFX and all the other backstage tasks. It appears my mate Millie, the producer, knew exactly how to talk me into anything and so I spent ten evenings and two matinees singing and dancing with my “tribe” of six and seven year old little girls from the local dance school. I even had to go to tap lessons with them beforehand which was hugely embarrassing. I must admit that it was a lot of fun especially as my great friend Nevin took the part of Man Friday, again “blacked up” although he only had a loincloth to worry about by way of costume.
Whilst it was hugely enjoyable there was a logistical problem with the body make-up. It is supposed to be water soluble and to an extent that is true. Despite showering after every show and scrubbing myself raw I spent the run and even a few days beyond looking like a rather tall chimney sweep and my once white bedsheets found the bin shortly afterwards.
I love the way I can ramble on about things in this way where I was previously fairly much constrained to writing strictly about travel. I am becoming rather fond of having my own website even if I do not quite know how to use it. I’ve never actually been my own boss before although some of my previous management may have wondered about that on occasion.
OK, here is a little quiz for you. Without recourse to Google, does anyone know what the charming little brass figure (pictured) on the bar do? I’ll tell you. In the days before a previous misGovernment of my country introduced the appalling smoking ban which cost innumerable jobs as pubs closed this little fellow would have had a small gas powered flame coming out of his rather oversized mouth (rather like the appalling creature who brought in the smoking ban) for you to light your cigarette on. I know of only one other example of this which is in the wonderful Crown Bar in Belfast which I shall write about in a future travelogue if I do not revisit on this trip.
I should say at this point that I am not in the habit of taking images of gents toilets in pubs (and certainly not ladies) but I include these images to show you just how old-fashioned this place is, it really is a gem. I have so many stories I could tell you about “Macs” but I shall save them for another entry as it is more than likely I shall return before I leave Northern Ireland.
Suitably refreshed I went round the corner to the taxi office and was home in no time flat whereupon I did a bit more writing of this blog, had my supper, read a bit and went to bed for another great nights sleep. It must be the country air or something but I am sleeping much better here than I do back in London.
Stay tuned and spread the word.