Good day one and all and thank you so much for visiting my little site here and if you wish to read my latest entries please go to the paragraph immediately below this one as they go in reverse order (most recent to oldest) from there.
For those that do not know me, I am to technology what a sumo wrestler is to synchronised diving i.e. I just cannot do it. I have just conjured up a mental image there that I really wish I hadn’t.
I have owned this site for about 15 months now (as of July 2019) and have been working very hard trying to resurrect writings from long ago which were previously on other websites, one callously killed off by illegal corporate greed and the other by lack of interest by the owners.
Eventually I have worked out how to pin (I believe that is the techie term) this page so it remains at the top of my front page. I have decided that the only way for me to make any vague semblance of sense here is to backdate the entries of my various trips to the relevant dates which may make them hard to find and so I am creating this page to assist you – hopefully! I shall keep you informed here of completed travelogues and those under construction.
Firstly, I did write for a while for a decent website called blogspot.com which I know is much used by travel bloggers. If you want a look at what was admittedly a very user friendly site and looks like not being killed off any time soon, then here is a link to my pages there. They deal mainly with my trip to the Philippines in 2012 but also with an earlier trip round SE Asia which happened to coincide with my 50th birthday shortly after I retired. There is also the beginnings of a piece on a month I spent in Malta but which I never really finished there and so it will be migrated here and a link posted in due course. Note that it is still under construction.
If you want to know about rather unusual trip which happened in 2017 when I went to meet a friend for four days (and had packed accordingly) in the Southern part of the Netherlands and flew home from Rome eight countries and over three months later then look here.
If you want to know about yet another trip that took rather longer than expected then have a look at my recent excursion back home to Northern Ireland which is detailed here. A week for a family reunion turned into two and a half months but that is the way I am.
As I mentioned above I started a blog on my trip to Malta in the blogspot site but I left there before it was finished so that is my current project here (as of July 2019). If you want to have a look of what I have posted so far and keep abreast of updates then this is the place to begin. Yes, the first few days will be unashamed cut and paste from the former site (I do not believe in wasting energy) but hopefully I can bring that to a conclusion here relatively quickly.
After that, I am very much in your hands. I have three extended trips to Canada to write up, three to Sri Lanka, another couple to Northern Ireland and a few to Scotland. I have a month on Madeira to write about and many other adventures besides. If you have anything you would like to read about, please tell me. It is all the same to me, it will all take time but this really is my last chance at writing online. If this one goes wrong then I am out of here.
Perhaps Burma, Lao or Cambodia are you your liking or maybe a great trip through a couple of the former Yogoslav Republics (Serbia and Macedonia) with some dear friends plus the briefest of side trips to Albania. Honestly, I was there for 15 hours, border to airport via Tirana. Imagine visiting a particularly secretive country where you never had a penny of the local currency in your pocket, did not speak a word of the local language and still got where you needed to be. That was Albania, proper “flying by the seat of my pants” travel and I loved it, I must go back some day. The Algarve in Portugal, Greece and Cyprus are all in the mix as well.
Please get in touch if there is anything you would particularly like to read about and I shall certainly prioritise it. As I say, if I live long enough it will all get done sooner or later and I do not really mind what order I do it in.
As for the image which heads up this page, it is not really very relevant to anything I have written here bar a passing reference to Burma. I just wanted to liven up the page with an image and this is one of my favourites to the extent I have it as a screensaver. It was taken from the grounds of the Shwedagon paya in Rangoon, Burma at sunset which is undoubtedly the best time to visit if you happen to be there. My dear Burmese friend Zin had very graciously given up her day off to show me round that fascinating city and we had had a great time. Not only do I find it aesthetically pleasing as it is one of my few half decent amateur efforts but it stands for the reason I travel, the reason I write about it and, ultimately, the reason this site exists at all.
Right, so much to do and time I got back to work so, as always, stay tuned and spread the word.
Nothing much happened on the 10th and 11th of June and I settled into a quiet routine at home which I found quite relaxing. Apart from reading everything I could lay my hands on and spending time with my Father I was keeping up this journal which is proving to be time-consuming. Time is not a problem at present but I do wonder how practicable it will be when I go travelling again. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
It is one thing writing all these entries but it is another to actually publish them. As I believe I explained before I have no internet at my Father’s home and due to its physical position I cannot access wi-fi. I don’t even have a mobile ‘phone signal there. I had briefly toyed with the idea of getting myself a few carrier pigeons to keep in touch with the world but then settled on an alternative solution. I had discovered that my local, the excellent Montagu Arms aka The Monty has got wi-fi so that is where I go to get online. Not that I need one but it is as good an excuse as any to go to the pub!
On my way to the Monty on the afternoon of Tuesday 12th June I decided to have a wander down the town to see what was what and was pretty depressed by the sight I was greeted with although not at all surprised. It has not got a lot worse since last time I was here but it certainly has not got any better. I keep hearing and reading about the massive international investment in Northern Ireland but as I have mentioned before it never seems to get too far outside greater Belfast.
I walked past the Monty where the restaurant has been closed for some time. It used to be a good place for a meal and served for a few years as a decent Chinese restaurant but it has not been open for a while. A few yards further on I passed what used to be the video shop – closed and shuttered. Turning the corner I came to the Ballymore pub which is the only other pub left open in a village where I remember six.
The Paddock and the Huntsman (Francie Cullen’s) are long gone and more recently the Castle (Ivan’s) which I remember drinking in just a few years ago. It was good for live music at the weekend too. When I was a younger, fitter man I even did a few shifts as a dooprman in the Huntsman. Since the last time I was home Jokey’s (Joe Cullen’s) has closed.
As far as I know, all four premises are still on the market with apparently no interest being shown.
Pubs all over the UK are closing at a terrifying rate and it is a subject I have an interest in and not just because I like going to pubs. In many smaller rural communities the pub was the social hub and as such performed a useful function. Couple this with the mass closure of smaller bank branches (the bank in Tandragee closed a few years ago), Post Offices and small local shops that cannot compete with huge shopping centres and the heart is just being ripped out of so many country communities. Urban areas are not faring much better.
There are many reasons for the pub closures which I won’t go into here but I have it on good authority from a friend who is well-placed in the drinks industry that at one point a few years ago there were 36 pubs closing per week in England and Wales alone. Add Scotland and Northern Ireland in and the UK figures are as staggering as they are depressing. The rate has slowed considerably now, presumably because there are not many left to close. The problem is very well documented on the excellent Lost Pubs website to which I have contributed.
Before Virtual Tourist was so needlessly and callously culled I had a small “travelogue” there concerning closed pubs near where I live in the East End of London. The criteria for inclusion in this piece were they should be in the E1 postal district which is about a mile and a half square at most (I think that is equivalent to a zipcode in the USA) and that I had had a drink in it. By the time VT was killed off I had 28 entries and a few more pending that I had not got round to posting. It really did make for depressing reading.
When I eventually get back to London I may well go for a walk round again and revisit the sites for an entry here or even construct a separate “chapter” or whatever it may be called. Again, this is the joy of having my own website now as I can publish anything that interests me without the constraints of having to stick to a particular subject. I do hope I don’t drive my small but undoubtedly select readership mad with this scattergun approach so let’s get back to Tandragee on a pretty overcast Tuesday afternoon. I told you the heatwave wouldn’t last.
Another few yards, and I mean no more than about 30, I came upon the hoarding in the image above which is there to cover an unsightly patch of wasteland that has lain unused forever it seems. I cannot even remember what used to be here. An indication of how long it has been derelict is the foliage of the flora clearly visible at least seven feet high. It must be a complete jungle in there. In the background of this image you can see a street running off the Main Street and things do not get any better there.
The street mentioned is Cornmarket Street although it is hard to believe there was ever a corn market here, now there is nothing but further dereliction. The image above is fairly self-explanatory and is the former premises of the Municipal Offices, again long closed, boarded up and with nobody around the village knowing what is planned for the building. This facility was part of the local Government apparatus of Armagh District Council and even that has gone since I was last home. In yet another round of cost-cutting and centralisation it is now part of “ABC” which stands for Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon and covers a huge area geographically and is administered from Armagh City which is nowhere near being central. In terms of population it is the second largest Council area in the country after Belfast.
It is a sign of the somewhat depressing times that even the public conveniences adjacent to the offices have long been closed and decaying.
From what I would call the start of the village proper at the Armagh Road roundabout I had walked no more than three or four hundred yards at most and I have described to you the scene. I was slightly heartened by a glance across the street which showed that the excellent local butchers is still going strong but I was not even half way down the Main Street and I had seen enough. I turned around and headed back to the Monty by way of the charity shop, which continues to flourish and where I almost inevitably bought a book, an Ian Rankin that I don’t think I have read which is unusual.
A few pints with some mates and then a quick stop in my little local supermarket where what had been a slightly depressing day in some respects took a massive upward turn right at the end. I am going to be a bit of a tease now and not tell you what happened as I have a little piece planned for the next entry to introduce you to a Northern Ireland institution so stay tuned and spread the word.
Hello again and thanks to everyone who has been kind enough to visit my rather disorganised little site.
I am writing this in my Father’s home in Tandragee in Northern Ireland where I have been for just over a week now. Being even more of a Luddite than I am, my dear old Dad does not have any internet and this, coupled with a virtually non-existent mobile (cell) ‘phone signal, has rendered me virtually incommunicado . It is now 12th June 2018 and I have no idea when I will get a chance to post this as my usual practice in such situations is to find a convenient pub and avail myself of the wifi on offer but the pubs hereabouts (those that have not yet closed down) do not seem to have moved into the new millennium yet which is undoubtedly part of their attraction for me. Wifi is a rarity and so I really have no idea when this might actually find it’s way into the ether.
As and when I am able I shall be posting a journal / travelogue of what I have done and am doing which will be my first foray into real-time publishing. To this end I shall do as I did with my Lundy travelogue and backdate each entry to the day it refers to else I shall just become totally confused, well more confused that my usual default position. Speaking of my Lundy travelogue and associated trip to the West Country I shall be returning to that asap as I have only a couple more entries to go to complete it. For reasons I shall explain as I go along I may be at home for a while and shall have a little time on my hands so there really is no excuse for not keeping up.
If any of you wish to follow my latest little jaunt it begins on 1st June 2018 and I shall attempt to link the entries sequentially if I ever work out how to do it.
The days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the 6th, 7th and 8th June passed passed fairly unremarkably with me sitting in the back garden reading a succession of good books. My late Mother was a prodigious reader and instilled a love of reading in me. She left an extensive library at home which I still have not managed to wade my way through and my complete inability to walk past a charity shop without checking out the book section means that I have plenty of choice.
I say the days were unremarkable and certainly my activites were but there is one matter that is definitely worthy of mention here and will cause raised eyebrows amongst anyone reading this who may have ever visited the Province.
The island of Ireland is stuck in the Atlantic Ocean on the Western fringe of Europe and consequently gets the weather coming East across that huge expanse of water which usually consists of more water. For meteorological reasons which I do actually understand but won’t bore you with there is a lot of rain here and the relatively Northern latitude coupled with the maritime influence means that it never usually gets overly hot. It was with complete amazement therefore that I spent three days sitting with my shirt off, shorts and flip-flops on and roasting myself in what can only be described as a heatwave. It was upper mid 20’s each day with high UV levels and it was truly glorious.
An indication of how bright it was is that I was able to read a standard print book comfortably without my customary reading glasses. I have done that before but it has been in places like the Algarve and Sri Lanka and I really did not expect it in Tandragee. I am certainly not complaining but it did surprise me a bit.
I mentioned that I was wearing shorts and thereby hangs another tale. For obvious reasons I had not packed any but my sister in law came to the rescue and brought me round three pairs which my (sole) nephew had outgrown. I had met him the day I got back and I could not believe it when he walked in the room. I had not seen him for some time and had a mental image of him as a tall but fairly slim schoolboy. He has just turned 20, is studying at University and has taken to going to the gym which has bulked him up no end. He really is quite a unit now and would make a useful rugby player but, to my regret, has no interest in doing so. I suspect he takes after his Father (my brother) who is a keen spectator but never really played much. I loved playing although without any distinction but my Father represented Ulster at inter-Provincial level in the 1950’s and continued playing social rugby into his 40’s. I had the pleasure of playing with him a few times for a wonderful veterans team called the Malone Tornadoes.
On the Friday morning my Father announced that he was going to mow the lawn. I said that I would do it but he would not hear of it as, despite his recent ill-health, he loves pottering about in the garden. Certainly my brother does the heavier work but it is effectively my Dad’s garden and if you have a look at the attached image I think you’ll agree that he keeps it very tidy.
There was one other small event of note on the Friday which demonstrates the legendary generosity of Northern Ireland people and the bond between musicians worldwide.
I believe I mentioned that my Father has carers who call and who I must say are very good. One of them is called Lana and she has red hair and lots of very well-done tattoos. When I say red hair I do not mean that in the tradtional sense of the stereotypical “Irish red-haired colleen” but something rather more crimson and obviously out of a bottle. I must say it suits her.
Under normal circumstances I would not subject a young lady to the sight of my ageing torso but I did not hear her approach to find me with no shirt on. She spotted the guitar tattoo on my back as well as the other two on display, one of which is a song lyric and the other the logo of a rock musician I know, which led to a conversation about tattoos and music. Of necessity it was brief as the ladies are on a tight schedule but I did find out that she was a multi-instrumentalist and played in a rock / blues band called Obsidian who had a gig the following night in Armagh to which she invited me but there was no way I could have got home late at night save walking about 12 miles which I didn’t really fancy.
She went on her way and I thought she had gone but a moment later she returned with the CD and sticker you see pictured. I asked her how much the CD was but she would not hear of it. Having been involved in the music game for some years I know that “merch” (merchandise) is often a necessary financial supplement to appearance fees for unsigned bands. With modern technology no more advanced than a PC you can burn CDs easily enough but this is professionally produced and the packaging is very slick. I particularly like the artwork which is the work of a local artist called Kevin Mahoney and struck me as very 70’s prog rock, which I love. For some reason I could not get the cover of the excellent “Wizards and Demons” album by Uriah Heep out of my head. Whilst I never had the opportunity to see Heep in their heyday I was fortunate enough to watch them perform the entire album at a festival near my home in London a few years ago.
By way of yet another deviation which I promise is the final one for this entry, I have actually played on the same stage as Uriah Heep. Admittedly it was not on the same night but what the heck.
Some years ago, I toured Sweden and Finland with a group of Irish dancers called the Irish Folk Ballet company. There were ten young female dancers, two equally young male dancers, a wonderful fiddle player called Lynne Butler, your humble narrator on guitar and vocals and two lunatic Finnish roadies named Kristal (yes, really, but we called him Kris) and Vesku. Our agents thought it was a good idea to send us up near the Arctic Circle in February and March and when we got to Vaasa it was -26C i.e. bloody cold.
One day we played two shows in the magnificent Tonhalle in Sundsvall in Sweden which is possibly the best venue I have ever played. Between the shows we were asked to sign a publicity poster which someone had put in a huge visitors book for everyone who had played there. With that done, I had a flick through the pages to see who had been there before and found out that Uriah Heep had played there only a few weeks previously. As if the 800+ crowd was not enough of an adrenaline rush, it really gave me a buzz to think I had fluked playing on a stage so recently graced by genuine prog rock legends. For the record, it was one of the best gigs of the tour. I cannot believe the agents were apologising that one of the shows had about 50 empty seats although the other was over-subscribed. I was used to playing to 50 people in a pub!
That is the somewhat meandering story of my unlikely early June sunbathing adventure in Northern Ireland, unlikely as it sounds but enough is enough and I was actually burning a bit so I’ll get my shirt on in the next instalment and get out of the back garden, pleasant as it is.
The 9th of June was a Saturday and the day I was due to return to London but I had changed my plans and decided to stay on for a while. Being retired I have the luxury of being able to do that. I had a couple of social engagements planned for the next weekend with old friends from the Virtual Tourist website but they were very understanding when I explained the situation. I do hope we can get together again soon as the phenomenal community spirit was perhaps the one aspect of VT that set it head and shoulders above any other travel related website. I have some knowledge as I have contributed to several over the years and VT really was unique.
A measure of the strong friendships formed is that long after the site was so disgracefully axed by the totally immoral and discredited Tr#pAdv&s%r (the typos are deliberate to avoid adding another mention of their reviled name for search engines to find) there are still annual Euromeets. Although I could not attend the 2018 event in Iceland, I did manage to get to the 2017 gathering in Kempten im Allgau in Southern Germany. The story of how I got there is a bit of a saga and may well form the basis of my next set of entries here.
Kempten was a great weekend with over 50 attendees and all because of a website that we could not even use for communication through any more. Although I do not use it I believe there is still a very active VT group on Facebook and at time of writing there is an online vote going on to decide between Newcastle-upon-Tyne in UK and Plovdiv in Bulgaria for the 2019 event. Both “bids” are from personal friends and I know either will prove to be a great success. I know that the majority of my small number of readers are old VT friends but if anyone else comes upon this entry and would be interested please get in touch with me and I shall put you in touch with the relevant people. Whilst the whole event was born out of a shared love of the website we are most definitely not prone to cliques and are a very sociable bunch with new people made most welcome.
As I do conversationally I am digressing again but as it is my website I can (cue evil film villian laugh c.1930). I shall have to guard against megalomania before I start hatching plans for world domination! Back therefore to a Saturday morning in Tandragee.
The day did not start well as it was today that I learned from the TV news of the very sad death by suicide of the renowned celebrity chef Tony Bourdain. I have mentioned before that I love cooking, cookbooks, cookery programmes and everything to do with the culinary art. It is just the eating part I have trouble with. I first became aware of him many years ago when a friend, knowing of my love of cookery, recommended his excellent book Kitchen Confidential which was a very much “warts and all” expose of the wirkings of professional kitchens. Tony started off washing pots in a New England seafood restaurant and eventually worked his way up to being one of the top chefs in the USA.
Much of the book focused on the appalling conditions faced by kitchen workers, often illegal immigrants, in the USA and this was an issue he fought tirelessly to change. It was a brutally honest piece which detailed his drug and alcohol abuse in the 1980s including stories about he and another chef staying awake in a chemically induced haze in order to prepare a completely over the top buffet and with much of the work being done in the freezer in well sub zero conditions. He certainly did not pull his punches and whilst I do not know where my copy of it has gone I shall have to acquire another one. It is too long since I read it.
Not only was he a world class chef with awards coming out of his ears but he was an inveterate traveller and many of his journies were recorded for various American TV shows like “No Reservation Required”. For a chef of his stature he was equally happy eating foie gras and truffle in a Michelin starred Parisian restaurant or sitting on a plastic stool in country X, Y or Z feasting on some obscure dish with the locals. This chimes very much with my own notions of travelling except that I tend more to the plastic seat than the Michelin star.
There are many TV chefs who do that like Greg Fiori, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein (a favourite of mine), the late Keith Floyd (utterly brilliant and he would never be allowed to broadcast as he did in these politically correct days), the Hairy Bikers (more favourites and not even trained chefs) etc. etc. but Tony went a bit further in a way that was quite personal to me.
I have spoken above about the Virtual Tourist website which I loved before it was destroyed by a totally immoral bottom feeder called Kaufer. Some years ago Tony was a guest contributor to that site and I loved reading his pieces. He certainly was not getting paid a fortune as there was not a fortune to give, he did it for the love of the thing, love of travelling, love of what we had on VT which was so very special as I hope I have demonstrated.
That a man of his obvious talents and passion should die at his own hand without having shown any signs of it coming is nothing short of tragic. I know I am not alone in mourning the death of a man like Tony Bourdain. RIP, my friend.
After a little early morning mist had burned off it was another lovely day but I had roasted myself enough the previous three days and so I caught one of the three buses that run into Portadown on a Saturday. I know I mentioned this before but small towns and villages in Northern Ireland really are poorly served by public transport. I cannot see how anyone could live here without their own transport, especially if you have a family. In fairness to Ulsterbus, the buses they do run on the Tandragee route are always very punctual but I just wish there were more of them.
The first places I visited were the charity shops which appear to dominate the town now with the only new shops opening appearing to be grocery shops catering to the huge influx of Eastern European immigrants that have arrived. Every time I go back to Portadown and walk through the centre I see more and more shops closed and the heart really is being torn out of it. Even my old guitar shop has shut (as has the one in nearby Lurgan) and I now have to travel miles to either Newry or Lisburn to get even a few basic accessories. Like the rest of the UK everyone seems happy to shop in big out of town shopping centres of which there are plenty and inevitably this squeezes smaller businesses out in town centres. It also reinforces my earlier point about the absolute need to have your own transport in order to get to these centres.
This economic malaise is not restricted to Portadown and seems to be regrettably all too common in Northern Ireland. I was talking to an old friend the other night and he told me it is the same all over the Province apart from Belfast which is booming, largely due to the huge investment associated with the so-called “peace dividend”. It appears the £ / $ / € just don’t get far outside the capital.
Whilst I lament the loss of the traditional High Street, I am a great fan of charity shops and simply cannot pass one without checking out the book section. I cannot remember the last time I bought a book from a proper bookshop and I picked up another couple for a fraction of the published price. I think I have about six unread books on my bedside table now but I just cannot resist.
After my trawl of the charity shops it was off to Joe Mac’s for a pint. Whilst I was there I had a read of the local daily newspaper and amongst the usual petty sectarian political squabbling and much talk about “Brexit” (very topical as I am typing this a mere 15 miles from the border) was a story about a man who had been sentenced to nine months imprisonment for running two brothels in Belfast. Vile as that particular crime is it was not what caught my attention. I have reproduced the article here but if it is not clear enough on whatever device you may be using he was called Catalin Vasile Manea which instantly gave me a clue, confirmed by the next phrase “originally from Romania” and leads me to a few observations about the country of my birth.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s there were virtually no non-indigenous people in Northern Ireland save for a very small Chinese population who were almost exclusively involved in the restaurant business. One of my earliest memories is of being taken to one of the two Chinese restaurants in Londonderry where we lived at the time. It was a birthday treat and I reckon it must have been about 1967 or 68. After half a century I cannot be sure but something tells me I had chop suey which I had never had before and which instilled in me a deep love for Chinese cuisine which remains to this day. Whilst the food was a revelation it was the staff that made the greatest impression on me as I had never seen anyone that looked like them before even in books and certainly not in the flesh. Northern Ireland really was that parochial back then.
In regard to non-indigenous people I was in quite an unusual position in that I used to chum about with a lad called Jimmy Niagra who lived nearby. Jimmy’s family were from Mauritius and to this day I have no idea how they had ended up in Ulster but our friendship led to another culinary first for me. I remember my Mother having to show me where Mauritius actually was in an atlas and at eight or nine years of age I could not even comprehend how far away it was.
Mrs. Niagra had invited me to tea one evening and my Mother agreed. It was very close by and in those carefree days before “the Troubles” started so I went down by myself to Jimmy’s house where we played outside for a while. When we were called in to eat I was presented with a plate of something that looked vaguely like the stews I was so used to although not quite the same. When I took a mouthful I knew it was not like any stew my Mother or Grandmothers made. It was very different and quite unlike anything I had ever tasted before. You are probably ahead of me here, dear reader, but I had just had my first curry and I loved it.
I am sure Mrs. Niagra took it easy on the “heat” of the curry and, on reflection, I wonder where she got the spices. They must have been sent from her native country as I am quite sure there would have been none of the exotic seasonings we are so accustomed to now available back then. I remember going home that evening and gabbling on to my Mother about this funny tasting stew and asked her if she would make it for me. Unsurprisingly, I cannot remember it ever appearing on my plate.
My first curry led to a lifelong love affair with the genre and I could easily live on the stuff, in fact I do when I stay with my friend in Sri Lanka. Enough then of my childhood reminiscing and fast-forward to Portadown where I moved in 1981.
In the ninth decade of the 20th century, non-white people were still a rarity in the town and indeed Co. Armagh although there were a few more round Belfast than there had been in the 60’s and 70’s. I knew of two mixed race families in Portadown and that was about it. It was after I left and in the closing years of the last Millennium and first years of this one that the first major wave of immigration took place courtesy of the EU when there was a large influx of Portuguese into the town. I have asked many people the reason and nobody seems to know exactly although I suspect that it is the age old process of a few immigrants coming and then others coming to join them on the principle of sticking together in a foreign country. What I do know is that most of them went to work in the Moypark chicken factory nearby although I do not know if that is still true.
I first heard of this from my late Mother who had volunteered in one of the charity shops in town before she became too ill. She told me that groups of Portuguese women would come into the shop and literally buy up everything in sight. My Mother, being my Mother, took it upon herself in her 70’s to learn some basic conversational Portuguese to converse with them. She really was some woman. I shall return to this Portuguese influence in a moment.
The second wave of immigration came with the accession of a number of other countries in 2004 when the UK was the destination of choice for a huge number of “Eastern Europeans”, specifically Poles in numbers that the Government of the day had underestimated by a factor of 10. With “the Troubles” more or less over, Northern Ireland received it’s share of these immigrants and I have already mentioned the presence of shops catering specifically for them. It suits me fine as I am partial to Polish cuisine and I can easily pick up a few bits and pieces. Older Northern Irish people tend to be quite conservative in their culinary tastes and I remember once making up a packet of flaki (tripe soup) at home and explaining what it was to my Father. His expression was priceless.
What I am going to say now will possibly be controversial but is backed up by plenty of verifiable evidence including the newspaper report that triggered this whole portion of the entry. For the relatively small numbers of Romanians currently in UK where they can come perfectly legally, there seems to be a disproportionate percentage involved in crime, specifically prostitution and people trafficking. I do not wish to further digress into the matter of prostitution and the pros (no pun intended) and cons of legalising it but I do find pimps amongst the lowest forms of life and I do hope Catalin Vasile Manea receives the kind of reception he deserves in Her Majesty’s Prison but back now to Portadown.
Walking down Woodhouse Street I wandered into the Oak Bar and I may as well have been walking into a bar in Albufeira or Funchal as it really was a slice of Portugal.
There was a Portuguese sports channel on TV, a Portuguese bar snack menu and Portuguese was the predominant language amongst both staff and customers, although I did have a chat with a local couple sitting next to me at the bar.
It was not like this the last time I was there a few years ago but I found it unsurprising for reasons as explained above.
Another short walk took me to McKeevers bar which is yet another beauty of an old-fashioned place although not nearly as old as McConville’s which I mentioned in an earlier entry. As you can see from the image it only dates to 1944. but it appears to be fairly well unchanged since then and they still serve an excellent pint of Guinness. It was only when I was leaving that I noticed the poster for Long Meadow Cider which I had never heard of despite me being a big cider fan and which was apparently made by the McKeever family not far away. Some relatives of the publican presumably.
The interesting thing about the last two pubs mentioned is that, whilst I have visited them on subsequent trips home, I never drank in them when I lived here. Such was the tribalism then in vogue that I was the “wrong side” to drink in either of these establishments. Certainly there is still a lot of organised crime controlled by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland but things really have moved on a lot and I feel quite comfortable in any pub in the town now.
My last port of call was McConville’s again as it is pretty close to the bus stop in Carleton Street and I had my pint of Guinness ordered before I noticed that they sold the Long Meadow cider I had seen advertised in McKeevers so I had a bottle of it before I went. It is a little sweet for my taste but a decent drop nonetheless.
I mentioned in a previous entry about how I was plied with Guinness one evening and talked into playing a cannibal queen in a pantomime in a meeting held in a snug here in McConvilles. I enclose here an image of the very table over which the deed was done.
On the bus then and off home for my dinner, a bit more journal writing and reading and then bed.
There is more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.
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.
After a wonderful evening meeting long-lost and never before met cousins followed by a great sleep, I was up and about the next day with no particular plans so I spent the day fiddling about at home, talking to my Father and reading a book about Blair “Paddy” Mayne who was a fellow Northern Irishman, Irish rugby international and wartime commander of the original Special Air Service. An utterly fascinating character. It was good chatting with my Dad as it is a while since I saw him.
Nothing much else to report so I’ll pass on to the 4th June.
In the evening I thought I’d take a wander down to my local, the Montague Arms aka “the Monty”. As it was a Monday I wasn’t expecting it to be busy but I thought I might meet someone I knew and so it was to prove. Certainly the bar was far from full but as I walked in the first thing I saw was a guitar case sitting on one of the seats. Hello, hello. A quick glance along the bar explained everything as my mate Ritchie was sitting there with his girlfriend and a couple of other guys I know by sight. Much shaking of hands, welcomes home and so on and a pint ordered, we sat down to the serious business of catching up on all the village gossip. It transpired that Ritchie was literally straight back from the airport having played some gigs in Scotland over the weekend, hence the presence of the guitar which is a Seagull, well over 30 years old and an absolute beauty.
As the title of this piece suggests, it was only a matter of time until someone suggested we get the guitar out and have a bit of a song. That sounded like a plan to me so out it came and we took turn about to sign and play with the other providing harmonies as required.
It was going nicely until I asked Ritchie if he had a capo and he told me that some lowlife had stolen both of his in Scotland. For non-guitarists, a capo is a device used to tighten around the neck of a guitar at a given fret thereby changing the key. I am sure most people have seen them. In a moment of either inspiration or complete idiocy I hit on a plan. I loosed my ponytail to use the hairband along with a couple of elastic bands I always have on my wrist which I teamed up with a stubby biro pen from a bookmakers shop and cobbled together a capo. I really didn’t think it would work but remarkably it did. The images hopefully give an idea.
The night wore on and on and it was quite late when I set off for home through the deserted and silent streets of a small village on a Monday night and off to bed for another great night’s sleep.
If you have come upon this page other than via the previous entry then I suggest you read my entry for 1st June, 2018 as that explains how I had unexpectedly ended up in a Dublin hostel en route to my family home in Northern Ireland.
I may have dozed for a few minutes during the night but that was it and I was up again by about 0500. Going outside for a smoke, I noticed that security should not be a problem for the hostel as it is right next door to a Gardai (police) station, so yet another plus for what was an excellent venue in a great location. I had planned to get the first train North but a quick e-mail exchange with my brother let me know that it was not necessary as we would not be heading to our planned family reunion until mid-afternoon. I contented myself with doing a bit of internet work and then making the five minute walk back to Connolly Station.
I was going to catch a train about 1000 for the 90 odd minute journey to Portadown which is the nearest railhead to my home. I spoke to yet another helpful chap on the information desk who informed me that my ticket from the previous day was not valid even though it was not my fault I could not use it due to Irish Ferries failure. A new ticket cost me €29 which, added to the €36 I had forked out for my bed the previous night was making for an expensive journey and totally negating any savings on a scheduled flight but the railwayman told me that if I kept all my receipts then the ferry company were obliged to reimburse me. I have not put that to the test yet but I’ll let the reader know how it goes.
A journey on a comfortable train, complete with onboard wifi passed quickly and I was soon back in the country of my birth, crossing the border back into the UK somewhere between Dundalk and Newry. The Enterprise, as it is known, is jointly run by Northern Ireland Railways and what I still refer to as CIE, the rail service of the Republic. Since I have been home I have read in the newspapers that they are looking for a huge investment to update the Enterprise as the service is known but it seemed quite OK to me.
There was quite an interesting episode between Dundalk and Newry where I was joined by a young couple who obviously had slightly special needs and were great fun. The young lady asked me if I would use her ‘phone to take a few images of them which I was happy to attempt but there was a slight problem. I have mentioned that I am completely useless with technology and cannot even manage to take an image with my own ‘phone let alone one I do not even know but she very patiently explained it to me and I duly obliged. I was quite pleased with myself. Alighting at Portadown I was again pressed into service as “duty photographer” but I had the knack of it by now and again produced a couple of images that were pronounced passable.
As I had the luggage I decided to use the lift to cross the footbridge and had a rather ribald laugh and a joke with three elderly women out for a day shopping. Exiting the station I was greeted by another elderly female who I have never been before who engaged me in a conversation about the weather and I was struck again by the differences in Northern Ireland and London. Everyone talks to everyone else here whereas in London people just do not do it. Crossing the carpark I was making a beeline for one particular venue, Bennett’s Bar.
It is a habit of mine that the first thing I do when getting home is to go into this fine hostelry for a pint. Rounding the corner I was aghast to see that the pub was completely enclosed by scaffolding. Oh no, surely not. I know from the evidence of my own village that pubs are closing down hand over fist but not Bennett’s which is one of the more popular watering holes in town. Hurrying to investigate I noticed a sign indicating the bar was open upstairs and this was confirmed by a burly young builder who came out of the main bar where there was obviously some serious refurbishment going on.
OK, up we go, luggage and all and it was hard going as it was absolutely pitch black, I mean proper coalhole but I was not going to be deterred. Feeling my way to a door I went in to find a completely empty and barely lit bar with a young lady in the corner working at her mobile ‘phone. Not wishing to startle her I gently cleared my throat and enquired if the bar was open. Technically not for another few minutes but she bid me come in and she’d get me a drink. In all the years I had been drinking in Bennett’s I had never been up here before as it is only used as a nightclub at the weekends and even in my younger days I was never much of a one for that kind of thing. The young lady started me off a pint of Guinness and then off to the DJ decks to put on some music which was of the boom boom “dance variety” although thankfully not too loud. The pint came up, well-kept and poured as I would expect here and which prompted another small ritual of mine which is to take a picture of the first drink I have in any country when I (re)visit it. You can see it here.
Whilst the barmaid was scurrying about getting ready for what she expected to be a busy lunchtime food service (the food here is very good) we were snatching pieces of conversation and she told me that the pub was still owned by the eponymous Bennett brothers, Niall and Tony, whom I have known for about 35 years. I was telling the young lady about some of the things we used to get up to when, as if on cue, in walked Tony who took one look at me, called me by name and asked if I still lived in London. Bear in mind that he has not seen me for about three years and it was an impressive feat of memory. He was quickly hard at work but we managed a few reminiscences including the pub charity rugby side we used to organise every season. Speaking of rugby I ended up having an impromptu rugby training session with a small boy using a soft toy as a ball. Long story for another time.
The bus service to Tandragee is pretty appalling on weekdays, worse on Saturdays when there are only three in each direction and non-existent on Sunday so it was round the corner to get a taxi the five or six miles to my brother’s house. Greetings duly exchanged and I was somewhat amazed by my 20-year-old nephew who has taken to going to the gym and is about twice as broad as the last time I saw him! To quote the late Sandy Denny / Fairport Convention, “Who knows where the time goes”? My only regret is that he does not play rugby! After that, it was up the road a short distance to my Father’s house where I would be staying, drop my kit and say hello and then off we went to “meet the family”.
We were heading for the little village of Castlederg in County Tyrone which is the area my late Mother came from. Northern Ireland is a relatively small country and I lived there for the first 28 years of my life so I thought I knew it pretty well but I cannot remember ever having stopped there although I know I have driven through it. My Mother was the youngest of a large family which for various reasons, including World War Two ended up dispersed all over the place which means I had uncles and aunts I had never met and even, at the age of 58, first cousins in the same situation. Time to fix all that.
We were foregathering in the Derg Arms, which proved to be an excellent choice as you will find out. It is a big premises which serves as bar, restaurant and hotel and several of my relatives were staying there, all speaking very highly of it.
There were 13 cousins there and along with husbands, wives and partners there were over 20 of us who sat down for dinner. I chose the chilli beef with noodles and, this being Northern Ireland, had to choose a side dish of potatoes which seems odd but we do like our spuds where I come from. Everyone seemed very pleased with their meals and I did have a chance to compliment the chef when I bumped into her out the back whilst having a smoke later on. She said it had been a busy night and it must have been as they also had a football (soccer) club dinner which seemed to be well attended in addition to the usual Saturday evening diners. Despite all this, service was good and very friendly in that typically Northern Ireland fashion.
After the meal we all retired to a lovely room which was actually the private dining room of the owners, which I thought was very decent of them, and which kept us separate from the slightly boisterous football crowd and young locals complete with pumping dance music. I include one image here merely to show how homely it was.
I do not intend to bore the reader with a family occasion but one cousin who serves as the family historian produced a family tree, there were all sorts of old photos including some of my late Mother that I had never seen and plenty of chat. I met cousins I had not seen since the 1960’s which did make me feel rather old. One of the highlights was the attendance of what I believe is a second cousin of mine. I am no expert on these things but he was a first cousin of my late Mother’s and was the ripe old age of 100, he was great.
All too soon it was time to go as we had about a 90 minute drive back to Tandragee so it was pretty late when I turned in and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It had been a long day and a great evening and I am really glad I went.