Vincent, half a breakfast, two gigs and back to bed.

I woke up well rested again early on the morning of Thursday 15th August and due to my late arrival from London it was already the penultimate day of the Festival and I felt as if I had barely started. I had a bit of time to spare so I decided to go for a look round Spencer Square where the hotel was as someone had told me that Vincent van Gogh once lived there. It did not take me long to find the appropriate blue plaque commemorating the fact on the wall of number 11 on the opposite side of the square. I love blue plaques as I find them are endlessly interesting.

A few doors along there was another blue plaque, this time erected by the Ramsgate Society commemorating the residence of one John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854) who I had never heard of but was apparently editor of the Quarterly Review which I had similarly never heard of although internet research shows it was a journal published from 1809 -1967. It appears that Lockhart was more famous for being the son-in-law of the writer Sir Walter Scott. Not much of a claim to fame really and I think I may have an answer to why about every third building in Ramsgate “boasts” a local plaque and that is that Margate, just along the coast is exactly the same. Ramsgate and Margate have traditionally been rivals and are now competing for the tourist second home and retirement home markets amongst others and I think there is some one upmanship going on. Of course, I could be wrong and it would not be the first time.

I had not really eaten for a couple of days and so I took myself to the huge Royal Victoria Pavilion, a fairly new J.D. Wetherspoons venue (OPENED 2018) on the seafront adjacent to the Royal Harbour. It is their largest outlet by far and was the largest pub in the UK when it opened. Despite this, it has some very strange menu / drink choices and one of them impacted on me here. JDW do a number of variations on the theme of Eggs Benedict of which my favourite is Eggs Royale which substitutes salmon for the traditional ham yet this is the only Wetherspoons I know that does not offer it. Nor does it offer Strongbow cider although it is on the tabletop advertising blurb. I noticed another omission from the normal menu but I cannot recall what it is just now. I really do not understand the thinking.

Eggs Benedict it was then, beautifully cooked and served promptly and yet my ever-decreasing appetite did not even allow me to finish it, tasty as it was but at least it was some food in me and I took what was supposed to be a bit of an arty image of the beach through the window from where I was sitting. I have to say that the views from the Pavilion are stunning and there will be more in further posts in this series.

It is only a short walk to the bus and another one at the far end in Broadstairs and I was once again setting up with Paul for yet another playaround. Happy days and again there was a reasonable crowd for this late in the week. When this was over, Paul and Sue again took off somewhere and I decided to sit tight again as the afternoon act was another guy I know called Gabe so I settled in for that, again drinking little and still not feeling quite up to par.

Gabe often plays troubadour but on this occasion was backed by another guy I know and have jammed with called Jeff on bass and another couple of musos who I did not know. Gabe does a few of his own but predominantly covers and he does love James Taylor (who doesn’t?) so that got a good outing. For me, the highlight was when he got Bessie from the Dealers band up for a number, which you can see here. I am not sure if the Dealers are actually still a functioning unit but it was Bessie and a guy called Pierre and they were very, very good. I discovered them at Folk Week years ago. Don’t worry about the name, it is nothing to do with drug dealing but rather that they come from the town of Deal in Kent, simple as that!

Not long after the band had finished my ‘phone went and it was Paul asking me if I fancied joining him and Sue for a pint in the Magnet, another of the numerous micropubs in the area. As it is literally 50 yards up the road and in the direction I would eventually be going anyway, that seemed like a plan and so I said my goodbyes at the bar, picked up my guitar and moved onwards, ever onwards.

When I went into the Magnet I met quite a few people I knew as well as Sue and Paul so it was another round of handshakes and hugs all round. I suppose I should give you a quick rundown on the place which I first encountered many years ago as the Fish and Beer bar which was exactly what it was, a Belgian themed establishment with an open kitchen, limited but tasty menu and a great selection of great if expensive beers. It was owned by a guy who owned a quite upmarket fish restaurant in Ramsgate and he really did not have time to keep both projects going so he put it on the market and it was bought by my great friends John and Jo who I have known for years. They changed the name to Reef and carried on much in the same vein as before although over the several years they had it the food took a gradually less forward role but there was still a superb selection of interesting beers. In 2018 they were forced to close for a while as the cellar was flooded by a mains leak in the road outside and I was asked to play the re-opening night which I did with my dear friend Noel McAuley and we had a great night. Well, it was a great night until the point right at the end where I misjudged the relative positions of the bar stool I was playing on and the wall behind and with my final, “Thank you, goodnight” ringing in their ears the crowd were treated to me doing a not very graceful dying swan off the back of the stool, cracking my head on the wall and ending up with my legs in the air in an undignified heap but still clutching the miraculously undamaged guitar.

Thankfully there was no harm done except to my pride and I will eventually get round to writing up when I put together Broadstairs 2018 as a project here! Don’t hold your breath though.

I was introduced to Will, the new landlord, and his good lady, was made to feel most welcome and sat down for a bit of a chat and a catch up. I really had no intention of playing any more that day but, as my dear friend Suzi once remarked to me, “You are just a party waiting to happen”. There is undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in this as there is with most things she says and never moreso than when I am with Paul as we just seem to egg each other on.

Paul Lucas and Fergy Campbell at the Magnet micropub Broadstairs.
Paul and I doing what we love to do.

The original plan was that we would just go and sit in the “Musicians Corner” and play a few tunes and songs acoustically. Well, that was the plan anyway. Somehow it escalated into having one ambient mic just for a bit of poke although between my voice and Paul’s banjo we could fill that space three times over, it really is a micro micropub. As well as being a purveyor of fine alcoholic refreshment, Will is a card-carrying sound engineer and a very good one at that. His argument was why bother with one ambient when he had the full PA rig already deployed and ready to go and so we ended up as you see us above, fully stage rigged as we would be for a proper paid gig. Why not as I was still playing catch up to a degree and was relatively fresh despite my illness? Paul is just like the Duracell bunny, he never knows when to quit.

To make a long story short, we must have played another two hours and had a jolly old time. I know we attracted a bit of passing trade as people told us so later and were asking what our band name was etc. (we have never had one in all these years although Paul is currently in Shamrock Street and I played for years with the Northern Celts until the travelling made it impossible) and so everyone was happy. Will was getting a few £££ over the bar, we were having a ball and getting a few pints for our trouble and the punters seemed to enjoy it from their reaction and kind applause and the fact that they didn’t just walk out. What’s not to like?

I suppose we probably finished about 2100 and again I was feeling the pace so off for yet another early bed. This really was getting ridiculous.

Last day of Folk Week in the next post so stay tuned and spread the word.

First full day at Folk Week.

Wednesday 14th August arrived with reasonable weather but look at the skies told me that it was very possibly not going to remain that way, which indeed proved to be the case later on.

The very first thing I needed to do was to get one of these microcard things for my new camera as it was about as much use as a lawnmower on a submarine without it and so time to check the internet for a suitable outlet and here I encountered another small problem with the guesthouse that could have been solved so easily with a little thought. Spencer Court boasts wifi and it may well have it but it is password protected and the only place the lengthy alphanumeric password is displayed is in the entrance hall which meant I was either going to have to run downstairs, write it down and then go back up to my room or else lug my laptop downstairs and input it there. Not a major problem certainly but it surely would not be beyond the wit of man to put a simple notice somewhere in every room. Again, it is just indicative of how they could improve the guesthouse considerably with just a little thought and without spending too much money. I took the lazy way out used my ‘phone instead.

CeX entertainment exchange Ramsgate.
My technological saviour – at a price!

I discovered a place called CeX which was right in the middle of town and not far from where I had to catch my bus to Broadstairs and wandered along to the shop where I spoke to a very helpful young lady who produced a 64GB SDXC cartridge which is apparently what I needed for £12 as it was second hand. I suppose the name of the business, which is presumably a contraction of Computer Exchange or something, should have given me a clue. It didn’t bother me in the slightest and a subsequent check slightly annoyed me as apparently I could have got the exact one I was sold for £9:99 online or in a Curry’s store that actually stocks them! Slightly irritating but at least I was good to go then.

A quick bus journey and I was back in the George Inn and setting up with Paul for the day’s session which turned out to be another good one with a decent crowd. The numbers of players generally tend to decrease as the week progresses when people who cannot stay the whole week drift off home but it was pretty consistent this year so in the very unlikely event that any of you may read this blog at some point, thank you all so much for coming as there is not much point in having a playaround if there is nobody there to play around!

We played away as happy as sandboys and it was getting darker and darker outside which convinced me that my earlier weather forecast was going to prove to be correct as it began to pour and when I say pour I mean it, it was positively monsoonal. Regrettably for an event that is so weather dependent Folk Week seems to suffer more than it’s fair share of appalling weather and I have been there, sometimes camping which was no fun, in conditions that would not have disgraced SE Asia in the wet season. I had been told that on the Sunday night / Monday morning there had been heavy rains and winds approaching hurricane strengths. There had been weather warnings issued by the Met Office and I have it on good authority that 33 tents were completely wiped out on the official campsite.

Amongst the victims under canvas was my mate Ted Handley from the excellent folk band Triality who are three brothers featuring a slightly unusual line-up of bass, accordian and trumpet, work that one out if you can. They are all great friends of mine and have been playing Broadstairs even longer than I have! Ted had one of these huge family marquee affairs that you need a map and compass to navigate round and he was camping with the whole family and enough kit to service a battalion but when the portable palace blew down he had to borrow his brother’s much more modest four man tent which put somewhat of a damper on things.

I’ll let the images speak for themselves regarding the weather and it was partly because of this that I didn’t fancy moving far after we had finished but the main reason I wanted to stay was that the afternoon act was the Baggy Boys who I love. If you have never experienced the Baggies, as they are known to their fanatical following, it is going to be extremely hard to describe what they are as they defy all conventional band knowledge.

The Baggies official website lists eight members although at the gig I am reporting on here they were apologising profusely that one of the band had had to return home early and there were still eight of them. I’ll swear I have seen them playing with about 14 members although it was at a previous Folk Week and in the evening of a hard day so I may conceivably have been seeing double by then. Looking at the band onstage it appears that about half the band play electro-acoustic guitars and all playing the same chords (no Eagles style duetting here), there is a decent lead guitarist and the rhythm section consists of electric bass and a cajon drum in place of the conventional kit. Various other percussive instruments are swapped around within the band and often the audience as well.

All this sounds as if it must be total chaos and it can indeed get quite hilariously disorganised onstage occasionally but the cleverly thought out repertoire of crowd-pleasing singalong numbers, hugely amusing banter between numbers and a very obvious delight in what they are doing makes this one of the most unfailingly good time pub bands I have ever seen, if you ever get a chance you should really go and check them out.

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Dave getting down with the Baggy Boys.

You might wonder how such an unusual outfit came into being and, frankly, so am I. Every time you ask one of them, or indeed anyone who has ever been associated with them in any capacity, you will get a different answer. Either they do it deliberately to build up a bit of mystique or they genuinely cannot remember themselves. Having met them many times I reckon either hypothesis is equally likely. The lads played to a hugely appreciative audience including Dave, the pub “guv’nor”, who you can see above strutting his stuff on the tambourine behind the bar. Like every other landlord in town he loves them and they are never short of bookings during Folk Week. Like myself, they usually manage to blag a couple more impromptu ones when they are here just for the love of the thing and they really are the Martini band – “Anytime, any place, anywhere”.

If the origins of the band itself are somewhat shrouded in mystery there is a little less controversy about how they came to be playing at Folk Week. I have it on good authority that a few of the guys were down for the Festival purely as punters and obviously had their instruments with them. Fancying a bit of a jam (I know that feeling well) they approached Chrissy, the landlady of the Prince Albert pub, and asked if they could play a few tunes. Of course they could as Chrissy is a great one for live music and was a great supporter of Folk Week and it was full steam ahead. She enjoyed them so much she booked them on the spot for the next year with the full band. As always, in the interest of fair reporting, I should say that Chrissy and her partner are great friends of mine, I still see them regularly although not in the P.A. which was taken over by an outfit called the Craft Union Pub Company and got rid of my friends. They replaced them with a manageress who quickly alienated all the regulars, most of whom left and have not returned, and turned the upstairs manager’s accommodation into a clubhouse for a local outlaw motorcycle club! Unbelievable but true. She is gone now and apparently there was a decent couple in there next whose daughter now runs it well but I will never be across the door of it again. As for the Baggies, they played the next year, ate the place and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Paul One Love doing his thing in the George Inn, Broadstairs.

By early evening the weather was not as bad as it had been but still not great and I didn’t fancy trekking all the way up to St. Peter’s where Paul was trying to get some sort of a session together. I still was not feeling great, nothing I could put my finger on but just a general malaise and I certainly was not drinking a whole lot so I decided to stay put in the George as the evening act was anther guy I know called Paul Messenger. Paul’s stage name Paul One Love, which probably gives you an idea as to what kind of stuff he plays. Paul is a troubadour i.e. one man and his guitar and plays to backing tracks from a seriously state of the art backing track machine. I’ll swear NASA could launch rockets with that piece of kit. His set is all covers with a heavy emphasis on reggae and ska, particularly UB40 and Bob Marley. He is very good and has a large local following wherever he plays. Rumour has it that he is also an excellent cook but I have never been invited to dinner yet!

Paul is one of the hardest working musicians I know and he will do a three or three and a half hour set with one very short break, he really does give value for money. I watched most of it until it was time to go and get the last bus home as taxis are like hen’s teeth during the Festival. A couple more chapters of my book and it was sleepy time again in that rather comfortable bed.

Still another couple of days of the Festival to go and a bit of an adventure thereafter so stay tuned and spread the word.

Broadstairs Folk Week at last.

Well, Broadstairs Folk Week has been and gone again and I am actually writing this as the dust settles in the aftermath. I know I have mentioned it many times before on various pages on this site but for newcomers a) welcome and b) a quick word of explanation. This is undoubtedly my favourite festival in the world and I have been playing it in one guise or another for 30 of the last 31 years. I missed 2016 as I was in Canada travelling and playing the odd gig so I reckon that was a reasonable excuse. On that occasion my travelling companion told me I was like a bear with a sore head (she knows all about bears with sore heads as she is Canadian herself) because I was fretting about not being on the Kent coast making a noise on my guitar.

As you will know from previous entries here I had returned from visiting family in Northern Ireland in good time for the festival which is not always the case as I have been known to get back from there at about 0100 on a Saturday morning and been on a train to Broadstairs shortly after 0900 the next morning having stopped off at home briefly to ignore the bills piling up on my doorstep, swap clean laundry for soiled and pick up my guitar. Despite my best efforts, everything just seemed to conspire against me and it was an odd Folk Week in many respects. I was having a bit of difficulty getting in touch with my wonderful friends who put me up every year for the week and, indeed, far beyond but I had eventually contacted them although because of personal circumstances they were unable to host me this year so now I had a problem.

The area of Thanet which is basically Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate is a very seasonal seaside tourist region and accommodation can be hard enough to find in the summer but it is impossible in Broadstairs during Folk Week. Actually, that is not strictly true, I could get a single room for about £120 a night and upwards which is way outside my budget. I tried every site I knew including homestays and there was nothing with the nearest affordable options being Whitstable and Canterbury, neither of which are feasible commutes especially if you play late in the evening as I often do. The best I could manage was a B&B in Ramsgate from the Monday to the Friday which meant the week would not be a total washout anyway. I got in touch with my mate Paul and told him what had happened and he said that was fine as I was not actually booked and we do sessions / playarounds so it is not as if it was essential I be there much as I would have loved to.

I woke up on the Monday morning all ready to go but not a chance. As I say, everything was conspiring against me and I had the most unpleasant stomach upset, there was literally no way I was going to be able to travel. Straight back on the ‘phone to Paul to explain and lay in bed all day feeling wretched on a number of levels. I had paid for the room in advance so I called the B&B and they kindly agreed to hold the room even though I would not be there. Time is now running.

Tuesday morning and I still was not feeling anything like 100% but I was damned if I was going to miss another day so I jumped in a cab and headed to Stratford International to finally get moving East and this is where another issue that is close to my heart crops up. I had got there in good time (about 0830) and asked the friendly young lady for a return to Broadstairs. She asked me was I in a hurry to get there and I told her that I needed to arrive no later than 1130 so she told me that if I could afford to wait until after 0930 I could get an off-peak ticket which would save me a lot of money. I knew about these tickets but when she told me the comparative prices I was astounded. I bought the off-peak for £44.70, which I still think is disgusting for a 70 mile journey, on the nicely timed 0932 but had I travelled on the preceding train about 15 minutes before it would have cost me an obscene £92. How can they possibly justify that? How can our Government allow it, not to mention annual fare increases above the rate of inflation (using the higher and less accurate RPI index)? The predominantly foreign owned companies running these cash cows must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Stratford International is in the middle of Westfield shopping centre which, when it was built, was either the largest or one of the largest in Europe. It was all tied up with the 2012 Olympics redevelopment as the stadium is right next door and so I took off for a look round although it was not merely an aimless wander as I shall explain.

I have long used a series of great little Canon Ixus compact cameras which I have been very happy with but a couple of years ago I happened to have been in my local Curry’s PC World outlet, not because I like them and they have messed me about badly before but because they are so convenient to my home and I bought a Samsung WB36F as it seemed to have a lot of functions and was on sale at an absolute steal of a price. I had stuck it on the shelf at home as I didn’t see any point in breaking it out when the Canon was still going great but it had just about had it’s last days and I thought it was time to change over. I got the Samsung out of the box and charged it with no problem. I opened it up expecting to just transfer my SD card from the Canon but, oh no, that would have been far too simple as it does not take an SD card, it takes one of these idiotic and extremely fiddly “microcards” which I did not have so I took myself back to the shop I had bought the camera in to buy one. Not a chance. The guy looked at it with a slightly bemused look on his face (amazing in such a shop) and then called his mate who told me what was required and then, when asked, informed me that they did not stock them. What is the point of selling a camera that you do not have the accessories for? He suggested I go about a mile and a half down the road to Argos to get one. Sod that.

Back then to Westfield on the Tuesday morning and I wandered all round it dragging my suitcase, daypack and guitar to find out that none of the several electronics shops opened until 1000 by which point I intended to be somewhere the far side of Ebbsfleet and travelling East. Back then to catch my much cheaper train and finally make BFW.

In light of all the above and in my desire to be totally honest on this site, the images at the head of this paragraph are from previous years but I can assure you that you could never tell as absolutely nothing has changed on that journey except for the price rises.

I got to my destination in good order and headed straight to the George Inn where Paul runs an open playaround every day during Folk Week. This is always very well-attended as it gives players of all abilities a chance to come and play in a group environment and one of the booked artistes from the main roster is always detailed to play so it is great fun. When I wandered into the pub it was just as if I had left the day before although it had actually been the previous November as I had got somewhat marooned after Folk Week. Most of the wonderful staff were the same, including Dave and Bev who run the place so well and look after us brilliantly and Paul and his lovely wife Sue both greeted me with big hugs. As the place began to fill up it was just one old face after another in the same way as it has been for so many years now, albeit the venue of the playaround has changed a few times, and I felt instantly at home as I always do in this venue and this town.

Paul always has the booked guest sitting on his left and he always insists I sit on his right as he seems to like me as his “wingman” albeit he is a far superior musician to me but it is a great honour all the same. I still was not feeling great but I managed to play well enough which pleased me as I had not played in public for about nine months for one reason and another. Ordinarily, Folk Week gigs would be a signal for me to hit the bar in no uncertain manner but I really did not feel like it and only had a couple of pints before the session finished at 1500.

In years past, we would have just kept on playing but Dave had booked afternoon acts for a 1600 – 1800 set and obviously they have to get their gear set up so we needed to vacate the “stage” area pretty sharpish. We sat and had a quiet drink and a bit of a catch up with some friends and Paul announced that we were heading round to the 39 Steps micropub (or tiny tavern as I have recently heard it described) to play some more which is about par for the course. We were not booked to play there nor advertised in the programme but we are friendly with Kevin the owner and we just pitch up and ask can we play to which he invariably agrees and very decently supplies the musicians with a few pints along the way. Despite the mind-boggling selection of ciders on display (have you ever tried mango cider?) I still was not feeling up to scratch and so was still taking it very easy.

Neptunes Hall pub, Broadstairs.
The recently re-furbished “Neps”.

I have explained the concept of the playaround earlier and I love it with people of all abilities getting a chance to play in a group environment and hopefully learn some new tunes or ways of playing or whatever but when we move on in the afternoon to wherever we are going (Paul seems to have an ongoing arrangement with half the publicans in town) it is usually only a small group of us who are all used to playing in public and all of us have been doing so for many years and so we can afford to get a little more adventurous in our choice of tunes and also throw in a few songs which we normally do not do in the playaround. If people want to sing at lunchtime then there is an excellent singaround in the Neptune’s Hall pub, just across the road from the George, which shows you how much choice there is at Folk Week.

When it got round to about 1900 we were going to get evicted again by an incoming booked act although not as swiftly as earlier as we just sit about in the middle of the bar and the bands set up in the corner so we can work round each other easily enough. Paul and Sue were heading out that night for a family get-together so I thought that would be an ideal opportunity for me to get booked into my digs and dump my kit at least. I really could not be bothered humping all that gear on the bus so I got a cab which deposited me at the door of the Spencer Court Hotel which was one of a terrace in what had obviously been a rather grand square in days past and much of it still was although the guesthouse itself (it would never merit the term hotel) was a little scuffed round the edges.

I rang the doorbell and waited, and then waited some more. Another try and another whole lot of nothing. I had noticed a handwritten sign in the window saying that if reservations were required then to ring the given mobile (cell) ‘phone number. I did not need a reservation as I already had one but, in the absence of any sign of life in the building I tried it anyway and was told to stay put and someone would be with me shortly. Sure enough, about ten minutes later a guy came sauntering round the corner, greeted me and let me into my room, asked me if I wanted breakfast which I declined and subsequently disappeared again leaving me to settle in. Remember that due to the inexplicable incompetence of my local electronics store I was still without a camera and my technological ineptitude totally precludes my using my ‘phone as a camera I was unable to take any images that evening and those that you see here were taken on subsequent days but it makes sense to the narrative to place them here. Again, I like to be totally upfront about how I throw this site together!

I would describe the room and the whole guesthouse as having seen better days and perhaps not for a while although I must stress that it was spotlessly clean. The room was furnished with a comfy double bed, TV, tea and coffee making facilities and an almost comically tiny en-suite bathroom. Looking at the outside of the building I would suggest that there had once been a large room with a balcony here which had been split into two to make a couple of bedrooms and then bathrooms had been squeezed in wherever possible. On the first evening I could see that I had the only small piece of balcony and there was a table and a couple of chairs there although they obviously had not been used for a while but the patio doors looked to me as if they were painted shut and so I was running up and down the stairs to go outside fora smoke which was a bit of a nuisance. It was only the next morning in the daylight that I worked out how to open the thing and I was quite content to sit out there for a smoke with the vista that just about included a sea view between some buildings but it was definitely pleasant on a good day although they were to be few and far between as we shall see.

I debated going back over to Broadstairs for the evening as I knew there would be plenty going on but I still was feeling far from 100% and I decided the sensible option was to have an early night despite it being my first at the Festival. I reckon I had five pints all day and was in bed by 2130 which is totally unheard of behaviour for me at any time and in any place, much less here during Folk Week but that is what I did.  A few chapters of my book and off to the Land of Nod.

There are still a few days of the Festival to go so stay tuned and spread the word.

Have you met Darth Vader?

Apparently nothing happened on the 8th as I do not have a single image but on the morning of the 9th my kid brother turned up on yet another one of his hugely powered motorcycles (he has a fleet of them) and I asked him to take an image. This one is his comfy BMW tourer that he uses to go away on with his missus.  He also has a CBX which he loves and is about 40 years of age but still pristine and a VFR which is a bit rapid to say the least.

He insisted on putting the visor down and so, ladies and gentlemen, I present my younger sibling, the very nice Mr. Vader (Darth by name) who really does not deserve the press he gets! Round the village / town where he lives (I am never sure of the proper designation) he is generally known as “Big Al” which makes me smile a little as I am taller than him. I dread to think what they call me behind my back. “Big Al’s Big Brother” perhaps or more likely, “That eejit that appears now and again, drinks a bit and plays the guitar and then buggers off again”. Really, at my time of life I don’t care.

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My brother, who really is a hardcore biker.

This admittedly short entry is only here to put this image in some sort of context.  Believe me, I head for mainland UK in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.

A strange day back in the old hometown.

Nothing to report for the next couple of days but on the 7th I knew I had to get to Belfast. As I have explained before it is ludicrously the only way I can buy a sailrail ticket back to London by travelling to the rail Travel Centre there. Still, I hadn’t managed to get to the city of my birth since I had been home so it was no great hardship.

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A pleasant enough journey on the train deposited me at the station and straight to the Travel Centre where a friendly guy dealt with me quickly and efficiently (look, I have my travel writing head back on now) so the rest of the day was mine. What to do? Well, obviously a drink or two would be called for but I fancied a bit of a wander round, just for the old times. Damn, I grew up here when it was a lot different.

First stop was always going to be the Crown Bar, a wonderful place which is actually owned by the National Trust and is arguably the most famous bar in the city. Nowadays tourists wander in the door, take a few photos and walk out without even buying a soft drink which I think is a bit rude but that is the modern world, I suppose.

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View from a snug.

I managed to bag a little snug by the door from which I could watch things going on whilst being relatively unobserved myself. Suits me and that is and was the purpose of the snug. If you don’t know what a snug is (they are all but extinct now) then look back to an earlier entry here where I explain it. A couple of pints and I was ready for a walk.

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Check out the windows, they are magnificent although sadly not completely original from years of IRA bombing of the Europa Hotel across the road.

Taking a couple of “back doubles” (i.e. backstreets and alleyways) I could still remember, I wandered down the side of Belfast City Hall which is a wonderful place to visit should you be in Belfast. They also have a really helpful Tourist Information place there. I only had a vague idea of where I was going, actually I had no idea, and so I headed for Royal Avenue which for the benefit of my UK readers is like the Oxford Street of London or, I suppose 5th Avenue in New York or wherever. It is basically the main shopping thoroughfare and I trundled along until a sudden thought hit me. I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.

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This is so typical of Belfast.

I thought I should go to Kelly’s Cellars but I had overshot the left turn for that so I took the next left into an entry which brought me back round but on the way I had to stop for a quick image of a mural on a little used walkway and which is so typical of Northern Ireland.
There are obviously some brilliant artists in the country and most of them tend to do their work on walls rather than canvas or paper. The murals in Belfast and, indeed, the rest of Northern Ireland, are famous and there are organised tours which do nothing but visit them. Many of them are sectarian and glorify terrorists and history that would probably best be left alone although the genre seems to have extended now to non-controversial subject matter. I just thought this was a beautiful piece of work, not that I am any sort of art critic.
Memo to self. Do a piece on Belfast murals when you ever get round to it.

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Another place of my youth.

Having had my artistic fix for the day (I was never going to go to a gallery) I made Kelly’s. This is quite an odd place in some respects, mostly associated with my youth. Belfast really was tribal when I was a teenager and walking down the wrong street would literally get you a kicking or worse. Being where it is, Kelly’s would not have been the type of place I would have gone to because it was on the “wrong” side. What actually changed a lot of that, if only for a while, was the music. In about 1976 or 1977 the punk explosion happened and all bets were off.
I liked the punk scene and the music although, unlike many of my contemporaries, I never really got into the whole thing very much apart from one awful attempt to dye my hair purple and wearing old jackets I had bought in charity shops but it really was the big thing.  Sectarianism was still killing hundreds of people a year in a country of (then) about 1.5 million people but that all went by the board with the punk scene. We had some bloody good bands too, Stiff Little Fingers probably being the most famous, but others like Protex, Ruefrex etc. were also doing good stuff. I always liked the Outcasts because I went to school with Greg the bass player. If I can find the image of when we met at a school reunion 30 years later I’ll post it here. He hasn’t changed (and still plays) but I just look bloody old!
The thing about Kelly’s was that it didn’t matter about your background or religion or whatever. If you were into the music, that was enough. Sure, it took the rest of the country long enough to catch up. In fairness, rock gigs were the same. When I used to go and see the late Rory Gallagher (in my not so humble opinion still the best white blues guitarist ever) and people like Horslips (brilliant Celtic folk-rock band) nobody gave a damn who you were or where you came from but they tended to play in big venues like the Ulster Hall (Rory) and the Whitla Hall (Horslips), both of which were in fairly “neutral” areas. Kelly’s was a bit different.
In I went and not a damn thing had changed in about 40 years, it was exactly as I remembered except for the constant stream of tourists coming in for a pint of Guinness, a few photos and a bowl of the Irish Stew, speciality of the house and which looked and smelt gorgeous although I didn’t try it, it was far too early in the day for eating. Yet another one for the memory bank and, dragging myself away from the brilliant barmaid who was cranking my Belfast accent up by about 10% per hour (I came back to England sounding so broad) I took off again.

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It is a lot different to what I remember.

Partly by accident and, I suppose, subliminally by design I found myself at Smithfield market. Well, the image tells you what it looks like. In my day it was a collection of wooden shacks selling everything imaginable and some things you possible would not wish to imagine. I loved the place. I bought my first guitar in there.
I had learned a few chords on an old Eko Ranger 6 that my Dad had brought home (and never even lifted to my knowledge although he plays keyboards well) but I wanted my own and I paid £15 for a Harmony six string which is not a great make but I wish I had it now.  I read a quote from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers saying it was his first guitar and it was unplayable but mine played reasonably well and I loved it.
As for the Eko, it still resides in my Dad’s house, bruised, battered but never broken and it features in an earlier entry in this set of blogs about this trip. Look for the entry where I constructed a capo from a bookie’s pen and a few hairbands! It has to be well over 50 years old now and the action is still pretty good. I suppose it is a bit like I am really – too old, rough round the edges and pretty ugly but still holding up a tune. I reckon it will outlive me!

Smithfield now is just sterile and wasn’t to my liking at all. Sure, I am glad they rebuilt it but it just isn’t the same. I had a look in a few shops but I might as well have been in Camden Market in London i.e. overpriced tat aimed at tourists. I do realise that I am starting to sound really old now but, as I have said, I can only write one way.
Leaving the 21st century predictablility of the new Smithfield I kept on walking as I usually do in search of something I could at least refer back to and which had not been swept away (i.e. blown up) by the the ravages of organised criminals posing as “freedom fighters” and subsequently replaced at huge expense to the taxpayer (i.e. me) on the back of the so-called “peace dividend”.

I obviously love the fact that you don’t have to walk about Belfast now wondering if you might have the front of a building blown out over your head and killing or maiming you, although that possibility still regrettably exists, but I cannot help but feel somewhere in me that the soul of the place has somehow got lost in translation. Certainly I have been away for a long time but I feel like a stranger in Belfast now even with my thick accent making me sound enough like a local to get by.

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An unusual hangout for me.

I walked along a few streets that I recognised by their location if not the premises there and came on the Mermaid Inn which is not a place I would have frequented when I was living there. This was not for any reason of personal safety as it is in a fairly neutral central zone, it just was not a place I used to hang out. It was OK although nothing special and a bit soulless so one pint in there was enough and back for another little trip down memory lane (there is an intended pun here for those that may know Belfast as it is an area known as the Lanes) with another aimless ramble.
I suppose it is entirely logical after 30 years but feeling like an outsider in a place I once lived was a very odd sensation. No, there was no animosity, far from it as Belfast people are renowned for their hospitality and I was greeted warmly wherever I went. I could not, however, help feeling like one of the numerous North American / European / Asian tourists who do so much now for the economy of a small country that would not have seen a foreign visitor thirty years ago as it was a war zone and that is not hyperbole, it is s simple statement of fact. I genuinely do not know how I feel these days about where I was born, strange as that may sound. Again, this seems a bit heavy but (all together now) I can only write one way.

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Leaving the Mermaid I took myself down to Cornmarket, quite a hub in the commercial area, and had a brief look at some meaningless piece of modern sculpture that someone clever enough to work the system had undoubtedly been paid a fortune to put there. You can get the same in any city but I could not help but look instead at a modern shopfront which, in my day, was the Abercorn bar and restaurant, basically a cafe and restaurant on the ground floor and a bar upstairs.

The Abercorn is etched on the minds of anyone who lived in Belfast at that time. On Saturday, 4 March 1972, it became the scene of one of the defining moments of so many others in the horror of what was wrought on my country by criminal terrorists posing as something noble over decades. The cafe was full of shoppers, mostly women and children when two teenage female IRA murderers left a 5lb. bomb in a handbag and walked out with it exploding two minutes later. It left two young women dead and about 130 injured, many with horrific injuries including losing limbs and permanent blindness. To call it carnage would be to much understate the case. For those not completely au fait with the politics of Northern Ireland, why was this done? Because the IRA believed that British soldiers used the upstairs bar. Why then place the bomb in the cafe? That was the thinking of what was effectively an organised crime syndicate masquerading under the pretence of being “liberators”.  Yes, I do feel strongly about his subject, very strongly and with good reason.
To use an ugly phrase with much currency in Northern Ireland at that time, they scored a spectacular “own goal”. The two young ladies they murdered were both Catholics i.e. on “their” side.  The lines are very blurred on this as not all Catholics are Nationalists and neither are all Protestants Unionists, as many of the first Irish Republicans were Protestant (e.g Wolfe Tone).  I really mean this, if you don’t know much about politics in Northern Ireland, then don’t try if you do not have many years left as it really is too convoluted and you will be dead before you ever even close to getting to grips with the intricacies.
Again, I understand that this is pretty heavy stuff and understandably incomprehensible to many who may some day read this. Remarkably for me, I make no apology for this writing as I seem to spend half my time here doing doing just that.
Perhaps I am finally getting my admittedly limited intellect around the concept of editorial freedom and I am actually finding it quite liberating after years of having to avoid even the most obliquely political comment on various sites for fear of bringing down the wrath of the usually self-appointed “internet police”. As always, I welcome any and all constructive debate here and I promise to answer everyone who may wish to contact me. In truth, it will not take much time as my readership is so meagre but I now have the “freedom” of the internet (on payment of a fee obviously). How I wish I had got into this gig at the start when it was a case of becoming a millionaire without getting out of your chair, what a life. Still, no point in crying over spilt milk and I probably couldn’t have managed it anyway, technophobe as I am.
Enough of all this and back to my nostalgic and ever so slightly disorientating meander round the capital of the country which seems to be causing all sorts of merry Hell in the Brexit fiasco currently being played out (October 2018) against a background of fine meals eaten by politicians and unelected bureaucrats in countries we either saved or fought against to save Europe from the yoke of Fascism.
If the reader is not aware (and why would they be outside Europe?) the major problem to implementing the democratic will of the British people (to paraphrase Robert Plant from a Led Zep live gig, “Does anyone remember democracy”?) that they should leave the much disliked Federal States of E is the border between Northern Ireland, the subject of this blog entry, and the Republic of Ireland.  The people of the Republic voted in a referendum some years ago against the will of Brussels (Treaty of Lisbon I believe although I may be wrong) so the public were sent back to the ballot box until the desired Brussels result was obtained.  They have done the same in other countries but that is the EU concept of democracy.
As far as I can see, E (as they will soon undoubtedly be called) stubbornly refuse to accept a “hard” border between a country that wants to bow the knee and one whose people voted not to. I was born in Northern Ireland in the 1950’s, lived there until the late 1980s and, for a long period of that time, there was a “hard” border. Yes, we were separate countries, yes there were border posts (before Republican terrorists started murdering Customs officers (my friend’s uncle was one such) as supporters of the British “apparatus”) but it never took more than a minute or two for my Father to drive my Mother, younger brother and I into the Irish Republic past the respective border posts. It may even have still been called Eire then, I cannot remember and life is too short to look it up. Anyway, it was never a problem. A “hard” border is only a problem to the multi-nationals who are all committed Remoaners (that is not a typo). Border posts are in place all over the world and yet it still keeps turning. Will the re-introduction of such cause the sun not to rise the next day? I think not.
Next up was a quick trip to one of the many “pound shops” that are such a feature of any British city centre these days and I love them. My primary purpose for visiting this day was that I was down to my last pair of reading glasses yet again. I really do not know what I do with them. I leave them lying at my backside, sit on the occasional pair and drop some others so often that the lenses become irrevocably scratched. I really am hard on them but fortunately I do not need prescription lenses so I stock up on as many pairs as I can lay hands on cheaply at any given opportunity. I cannot remember the name of this particular shop but, as the generic description of it I have given suggests, everything in there is £1 which is not a lot of money for any non-British people who may stumble upon this rambling.

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£8 the lot – bargain!

I bought three pairs of glasses, two hardback books which were each marked at about £17:99 and were titles by two of my favourite authors that I had not yet read. I bought three multipacks of chocolate bars for my Dad who loves anything sweet and the whole lot came to £8. At time of writing this in October 2018 that is $10:45US. To quote the Who, “I call that a bargain”.

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This brought back some memories.

Heading back vaguely in the direction of the train station I walked past the premises of Fred J. Malcolm Jewellers which has not changed one iota in at least 40 years. It was here that I bought an engagement ring the one and only time I ever started to descend the slippery slope to matrimony.  My late Mother knew the man running the place as she used to dabble a bit in collecting antique silver and so I got a good price although it was still an arm and a leg for a lovely piece, £800 as I recall in 1986 or ’87. That was a lot of money then but I was earning what was probably more than was good for an irresponsible young man like me in those days.
The engagement didn’t work out and I am quite prepared to admit now, as I did then, that the fault was entirely mine and that the young lady really did deserve a lot better than me. I did hear years later that she was happily married with kids which was what she always wanted. I have not heard of her for decades and I suppose she may well be a grandmother by now. I wish her all the very best and I do hope she is happy as she was a truly wonderful lady and how she put up with me as long as she did is still something of a mystery to me.

It is strange that even after all years a simple walk round Belfast city centre still provokes such strong emotions in me and there was more to come.

Time for a bite to eat and I knew where I was going as it was a Tuesday and therefore grill night in Wetherspoons pubs all over the UK. Again, for the benefit of non-UK readers Wetherspoons is a huge chain of pubs which all do food and they even have a few hotels now. I believe there are about 880 outlets at the last count and opinion is much divided about them. They work very much on economies of scale and rarely buy up pubs but rather convert old banks, casinos, theatres, Post Office sorting depots, churches and just about anything else huge that you care to mention and convert them, always with a local theme. I use the examples given as I have drunk in at least one of each type with my local in East London being the old Half Moon theatre which I can actually remember in it’s former incarnation.

There may be more than one ‘Spoons (as they are called colloquially) in Belfast now but the place I go is the Bridge House which is actually two buildings knocked through. One was a fancy goods box maker and the other an undertaker. What is of interest is that the architect was Sir Charles Lanyon whose other works include the glorious and technically challenging Antrim Coast Road, the Palm House in the nearby Botanical Gardens and the main building of Queen’s University which is also a short walk away. All of these will feature in future entries here if I live long enough.

I mentioned that opinion is much divided in the UK and Ireland where they have now expanded about the Wetherspoon brand so please allow me to briefly explain why. Many people like them as they offer very competitively priced food and drink and others decry them, claiming they are putting traditional pubs out of business as they cannot compete. I must say that I am firmly in the former camp.

Pubs were, and still are, closing at an alarming rate for a huge number of reasons which I am not going to go into here and it was nothing to do with Wetherspoons. If anyone ever even reads this and is slightly interested, send me a message here on the site and I’ll talk you through it. In the interests of fair reporting, which I have always tried to do on any site I have written for, and have even more reason to do so on my own, I must say that the service in a Wetherspoons establishment can be sketchy sometimes and nothing short of unacceptable at others. Part of the business model is to have as few staff as possible, although they are very good to them, winning award after award for being a great employer.

I have eaten and drunk in their outlets all over the UK many times and the only complaint I can make about the food is that I was once served an eggs Benedict with a cold Hollandaise, that’s it. It’s not haute cuisine, it is not meant to be, it is just reasonably priced grub (freezer to plate for sure) done well.

A year or two back I took my Canadian friend Lynne to this self same place when we visited Belfast on a tour of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Now, they know a thing or two about eating out in large chain bars there and we had spent manys a happy evening in various Boston Pizzas which I absolutely adore but I have a slight problem with their portion control as one of their pasta dishes for one feeds me for three meals! Anyway, I took Lynne here and I remember it well. She liked the bar, ordered a Philly cheesesteak (I think that is what it was called) and pronounced it very good. I thought that was pretty good coming from a “North American” and, please trust me, I am not on the JDW payroll to write this.

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I swear I could live off spare ribs!

I don’t know if it was just a bit of nostalgia or whatever but I managed to get the same table for two that we had sat at the night we visited. I started on one of the new books I had just bought and had a couple of pints before ordering my dinner which was exactly what I had had when I was there with Lynne but there was no element of nostalgia in this – the spare ribs in Wetherspoons are bloody brilliant and I always order them on grill night. I am so glad to see they have actually migrated to the daily menu so I can get them any time I feel like it. Yes, they were as good as they look albeit that it was a slightly bittersweet experience dining alone.

Another thing I like about Wetherspoons is that their head man, a guy called Tim Martin, who is obviously no mug to have built up such an empire (for such it is) speaks absolutely my language about the whole Brexit nonsense that is going on now.  Yes, we are back to that again. Not only does he “talk the talk” about it, intelligently deconstructing the fallacious arguments of the political class trying to protect their own gravy train, but he “walks the walk” by sourcing as much as possible from the UK, offering special deals specifically marketed as “Free Trade” or something similar where they are offering products from non EU countries cheaper than the brands currently protected under Federal States of E diktat. Here is a great example and proves far better than I ever could why it is such a good idea to get out of the EU, deal or no, as soon as possible. I have to say I am really relishing this freedom to actually say what I want.

To go back to a former “life” when I wrote for a great travel website I answered many questions for first time visitors to UK who had been frightened off a bit by reading about obscene prices for eating out and I always used to recommend Wetherspoons. That has not changed. Certainly you can eat cheaper by going for a “meal deal” from any number of supermarkets (which are great for a picnic in the park or whatever) but for a sit down meal Wetherspoons is as good as any and, again, I stress that I am not being paid to write this. The breakfasts are great and the curries on a Thursday night are excellent. I speak as one who has travelled a bit in South and Southeast Asia and whose dear friend makes the best curry in the world (I will accept no argument on this point, you really want to taste it).

Where were we on this lunatic series of digressions which have, one way and another, taken me four days to write? Ah yes, I had a bellyful of delicious spare ribs and headed back to the train station for a lateish train to Portadown and thence a cab home, the last bus having gone at 1750! Honestly, public transport in Northern Ireland is criminally bad.

Well, I didn’t expect my little jaunt to Belfast to buy a train ticket to have taken so long and with so many verbal excursions to describe but there you have it.

I shall finish off this little, or not so little, trip soon and get back to UK to head straight into another bit of an adventure so stay tuned and spread the word.

Same old, same old.

There are going to be a few days rolled into one here, as appears to be turning into a habit on my little site as, barring a day out in Belfast, mot much of note happened before I returned “home” to London on 10th August and which begged the question was I leaving “home” or going “home”. The facts of the matter are that I lived in Northern Ireland for the first 28 years of my life and have now lived in London (when I am not on my seemingly endless travels) in London for 30 now. As always, any comments would be most welcome on the subject of what you define as home?

I was helping to look after my Dad a little although his care programme, between some wonderful carers who attend him at home, and my brother and sister-in-law who live about 500 yards round the corner ensure that there is nothing to worry about on that score. I was just doing some little tasks and trying to help out where I could. In truth, I think he enjoyed the company, and I know for a fact that he was well pleased on one day when my S-i-L had arranged not to cook for him (she is a brilliant cook) and I knocked him up an Ulster Fry, the dish which has featured so much in this series of blogs and which he declared to be very tasty so that was good enough for me.

I had fallen into a bit of a routine which, on the evidence or previous visits home, had the potential to bore me to tears and yet it didn’t. I was quite happy pottering about the house during the day, taking the odd day trip to Portadown or once to Belfast for reasons which shall be explained later, going to the local pub in the evening for a few drinks with friends and jamming occasionally. I was eating regularly (as the images show and which is not necessarily the case at other times) and reading a lot of good books (my Dad has no internet access). Leaving aside my Father’s health for a moment, it appeared to be doing mine a power of good.

I do realise that this is all a bit heavy reading for the occasional visitor to the site who does not know me, and let’s be honest, I have a meagre bunch of followers here who I thank for their support but, as I said in one of my opening pieces here, this is my last shot at blogging. I am not going to risk another commercial site being pulled from under me and so this is, at times, going to be pretty brutally honest. At some point this site, such as it is and may eventually become, will eventually float about the ether and provide my epitaph to some degree. At least hopefully you’ll be able to read it online as a diary of mine would be totally illegible due to my utterly appalling handwriting!

Yes, this started off as a travel orientated site and it remains so although not exclusively. For the first time I have complete editorial control albeit I still cannot free myself of the mindset of travel sites but I am getting there. I have all sorts of odd ideas like daily limericks and who knows what else.

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Proper cheese on toast, Tandragee style.

So back to Northern Ireland on what had turned out, yet again in my case (a very small case as it happens) on what was intended to be a five or six day trip and I was two months down the road. If you have read some of my other exploits and if you read any of the many that are still to come then you will know that this is the way I am and, frankly, it suits me. My idea of travel Hell would be an organised trip as in breakfast at 0730 sharp, on the coach at 0800 sharp, famous museum at 0900 sharp, you get the idea.

I might as well start with one of my usual subjects i.e. the fry-up or ( often not so) healthy alternatives to it. The image above shows a little variant which is probably marginally less unhealthy than the Ulster Fry which has featured so prominently here. Let’s be honest, everyone loves cheese on toast but I love making it with soda bread. The effort pictured above features the said bread, Branston pickle, and a decent Red Leicester cheese I had picked up on offer at the little local supermarket. A quick crack of freshly ground pepper completes the dish. Again, I will digress here so I warn you in advance.

I am all in favour of a bargain in my food shopping and hunt out special offers in the same way I will go to a fresh produce market late in the day as they are virtually giving the stuff away. Also, I will mostly buy “own brands” from supermarkets for many things as they are every bit as good and often produced in the same factories as name brands but there are a few things I will not compromise on. Pickle of that type has to be Branston, English mustard has to be Colman’s and Worcestershire sauce has to be Lea & Perrins. Just about anything else is negotiable but these are not. Certainly there are a thousand other pickles and chutnies available and some of them very good, but this type has to be Branston.

I will certainly buy other styles of mustard (you can read in my European jaunt of 2017 on this site of how I went to Dijon in France purely to buy mustard for a foodie mate) but there is only one English mustard although the multinational Unilever, apart from their failed bit to Eurify to a single base in Rotterdam recently in September 2018 are moving from Norwich, it’s original home to two sites in Burton (Staffordshire, UK) and Germany. No surprise there and I wonder how that will play out when, or if, given the spineless nature of our alleged leaders, we eventually actually escape the mendacious clutches of the Federal States of E.
As for The Worcestershire sauce (which my Canadian friends call “W” sauce as they cannot get their tongues round the pronunciation, which admittedly is odd. I doubt I could cook without it (not that I can really cook anyway) to the extent that when I go to visit my friend in Sri Lanka I take a bottle of it with me as it costs a fortune when imported there for the expats. As a further digression off a digression, if such a thing be possible, why are there two pronunciations of the word pronunciation? Answers on a postcard please, as they say!

How can I write so much about a couple of pieces of cheese on toast? Very easily actually and I have just edited the above paragraph fairly seriously before I took off into a further digression about the origins of these fine British firms. Then again, I do have to keep reminding myself that this is MY site and I can do what I like.
I know opinion is very much divided about my writing style, if it can be called that, but on other commercial sites I have written for before more people seemed to like it than disliked it. In truth, I can only write in one style although I am trying to rein myself in a little bit. Being naturally inquisitive (for which read nosy if you like) I simply have to research everything I mention even tangentially in a blog entry and then include it in whatever I am writing. I reckon I’d have made a Hell of an intelligence officer in some field or another.

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What, no fry again?

Right, back to the narrative. That was brekkie on the 2nd of August, and the 3rd was equally subdued with a toasted sandwich and some tomato soup for the morning meal. What was I thinking?

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That’s better.

Thankfully, normal service appears to have resumed on the 4th as you can see above. A friend of mine who is a real foodie speaks of “food porn” which I used to scoff at a little but I reckon this is full on XXX rated. I am actually salivating now just looking at this image even if I did cook it myself. I swear this is turning into an Ulster Fry site!

I’ve rambled enough here so I’ll break off for another entry where I finally get back to Belfast so stay tuned and spread the word.

Last throw of the dice.

The very fact that you are reading this, if indeed anyone is, should be regarded as nothing short of a miracle.

The very fact that you are reading this, if indeed anyone is, should be regarded as nothing short of a miracle. Allow me to explain briefly as I am well aware that verbosity is one of my many failings, most of which I have only recognised relatively recently. Isn’t it funny how the passage of time gives you a much clearer picture of yourself?

I came to the fascinating mysteries of the world wide interwebnet.com or whatever it is called somewhat late in life and, after being shown the basics by a then 15 year old “stepdaughter” (I was not married to her Mother) along the lines of how to answer an e-mail and other such mysteries which she took for granted, I set off on a journey of exploration into the ether. Yes, I did get numerous withering looks of the kind that only a teenage girl can muster and which suggested, all too obviously if unstated, that I should just crawl back under my rock and await the Grim Reaper in due course. No doubt some of you will have fallen foul of it and I was still only in my 30’s at the time so hardly geriatric.

I have always loved travelling since my first “solo” holiday i.e. without parents aged 15 when myself, my younger brother and two friends cycled round the Antrim coast road in Northern Ireland, my home country. In the days before computers and in the prevailing circumstances at the time everything was planned to the last detail by “snail mail” and a visit to the Youth Hostel Association office in Belfast. A call on a public payphone (remember those?) had to be made to our parents every night but it was a start and I loved it. We were never more than an hour’s drive from home but it was an adventure and I was hooked. Everything was so much more innocent then even in the awful situation of my homeland in the 1970’s.

 

I promised to try to curb my verbosity so I shall precis this as best I can now. Armed with my newfound wanderlust, I took off to travel when I could and had left home. Nothing dramatic but some decent trips which were all organised (think package holidays) which merely served to inflame my passion for more adventurous travelling. Like the internet, I was a late starter to independent travel for various reasons too boring to go into here.

My first trip outside Europe was when I was 28 and went to New Zealand for a friend’s wedding which I turned into a month long trip as that was the longest period I could take off work. I had a stopover in Bangkok on the way which was the absolute definition of culture shock, a few weeks hitchhiking round Australia which regrettably is too dangerous to do now (hitchhiking, not Austtralia which is relatively safe) and undoubtedly illegal, a week in NZ for the nuptials with a 20 person honeymoon afterwards if you can believe that and then home. I enjoyed it immensely, the freedom, the new sights, sounds and especially smells which was the first thing I noticed when I got to Asia. I still never get tired of the smell of a Southeast Asian night market although I have been to literally hundreds.

I never had the opportunity to do the full-time “going on the road gig” as I had a steady job when I left the Forces in 1988. OK, I could have done that but I had a plan which has now fortunately come to fruition and that was to work very hard, manage my finances as best I could and hopefully retire relatively early to do my travelling then.

Path in an old railway bed, Lunenburg, NS, Canada.
A path along  a disused railbed in Lunenburg, NS, Canada.

In the interim I contented myself with working a lot of overtime and saving it for time off rather than payment which gave me the opportunity for one decent long haul trip per year. I was greatly assisted in this by a succession of very decent bosses and the fact that my workmates were nearly all married with families which meant that they wanted time off based on UK school holidays (July and August plus Easter sometimes). My preferred travel destinations are mostly in Asia so I could work like mad all summer to let the guys get time off for the two weeks break with the family and then I could take a month or slightly more off in January / February when nobody else wanted leave.

I worked hard and managed to get early retirement on a modest pension plus the werewithal to pay off my mortgage a few months shy of my 50th birthday which I thought wasn’t bad for one like me who is so totally useless at matters financial. It sounds like an ideal situation and so it has worked out but at the time I don’t mind admitting that I was utterly petrified. I had literally worked every day of my life and was really unsure what I would find to do with myself every day for the rest of my time on this planet. There was always the danger of just sitting about moping and I really didn’t want to go that way.

My entire retirement plan was predicated on travelling a lot and, almost as importantly, writing about it. I was fortunate in that I had been a member of a superb travel website called Virtual Tourist for a number of years where I had developed a love for travel writing hitherto undiscovered. I had literally thousands of entries and about 10K images there. I had travelled all over the world to “VT meets” and formed many firm friendships which endure to this day as well as discovering that I really did enjoy the writing almost to the point of obsession. I was active on an almost daily basis and it really did give me a purpose. I know this sounds a bit overblown but it is the truth and I used to set up little projects like walking several long distance paths primarily for the purpose of writing about them although I enjoy walking and exploring for it’s own sake. Then the sky fell in.

VT had been bought out some years previously by TripAdvisor and they announced at the beginning of 2017 that they were shutting it down. No provision was made for us to save our work although fortunately some of the wonderful members (including the former CEO and the original programmer) managed to get us some sort of a rapidly thrown together system without which I would have lost 12 years and literally thousands of manhours of writing, researching, cross-checking and a lot more. As and when I get this site up and running I shall attempt to transfer some of that content here from the disorganised shambles that constitutes my computer “filing system” although I do realise that it is unrealistic to try to move it all, there is just not enough time.

At time of writing in April 2018 I am not long returned from three months in Sri Lanka and I have a few other little half-formed travel plans albeit that my travel is usually arranged, booked and undertaken on a last-minute whim which is just the way I like it. Being a single man with no dependents I can literally just get up and go at a moment’s notice and regularly do.

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Typical “road” in Burma / Myanmar 2006.

Approaching 60 I am glad to say that I am in perplexingly rude health given my somewhat dissolute lifestyle with the one slight problem being a bad back which I ruined by playing too much rugby in my youth. I compounded the problem by not retiring when my excellent physiotherapist told me to (you were right, Roisin) and then ludicrously coming out of retirement which finally did for it and I was forced to quit for good at the relatively young age of 31. I have not even been registered with a Doctor for over 20 years which must tell you something! The spinal problem precludes proper backpacking but I do manage to undertake fairly extensive trips with a small rollalong case which is the next best thing.

I am hoping against hope that this will be the first of many entries on a blog that I am not going to shut myself down on!

Stay tuned.