I got there at last.

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.

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The hostel by early morning light.

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.

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A truly terrifying sight. Was it really closed?

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.

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First one this trip.

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.

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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.

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Our private “withdrawing room”.

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.

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A highly recommended establishment.

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.

Stay tuned and spread the word.

It didn’t start so well.

If you have just stumbled across this entry I would suggest that you read my entry from the 10th June 2018 entitled, “I haven’t really got lost” as it explains exactly what is going on in relation to this particular series of entries which I hope to link sequentially if I ever work out how. They refer to a trip I am currently still on in my home country of Northern Ireland where I have been for jut over a week and may be for an unspecified time for reasons which I shall touch on now.

Obviously I shall not be going into details but my octogenarian Father has not been enjoying the best of health lately and it had been a while since I saw him so that was overdue. Coupled with this my younger brother had told me that there was to be a gathering of cousins from my late Mother’s side of the family so it really was a case of killing two birds with one stone

I really do dislike flying short haul now as it is just so much hassle for such a short time in the air. I do not particularly dislike flying per se but with the exception of London City which is a couple of miles from my home, it takes me a minimum of 90 minutes to get to any one of the other four “London” airports none of which are actually in London! Add to that the requirement to be at the airport two hours before departure and it makes for a long journey. If I am going home I fly into Aldergrove airport which is about an hour bus ride to central Belfast then another hour on a train to get to Portadown and then an irregular bus or a taxi to Tandragee.

 

My preferred mode of travelling back to Northern Ireland is a “railsail” ticket which includes train travel from London to Holyhead, ferry to Dublin and a train to any station in Northern Ireland. Somewhat oddly it does not include the bus from the ferry to Connolly station of the Busaras bus coach station) but even allowing for the €3 single the fare is certainly comparable with flying even on the “cheapo” airlines which I refuse to use anyway having been let down by them far too often.

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It all starts at Euston station.

I had opted for the 1210 train as opposed to the 0910 boat train purely to avoid the rush hour on the Tube which is such a pain. The seldom used alarm function on my ‘phone did it’s thing and I woke in mid-morning feeling absolutely wretched. Whatever had been laying me low previously seemed to have return with a vengeance and I really felt like doing nothing except staying put and going back to sleep but I knew I would regret it if I did not go as planned so I forced myself into the shower, packed a small rollalong in a few minutes and headed out.

At this point I shall utilise a review I wrote for the now sadly demised Virtual Tourist website, suitably edited, which is still relevant as I do not see much point in re-writing something that took me so long in the first place. It actually refers to the journey the other way but the details are the same in reverse.

“When I began travelling in the 1970’s the only realistic way to travel to and from Northern Ireland was by boat as air travel was hideously expensive. Travel to London without driving involved either an overnight boat to Liverpool, a train to Larne and over to Stranraer with an awfully long train / coach trip or the Dublin / Holyhead option going through the Republic of Ireland and train or coach from North Wales. Frankly, none of them were a lot of fun.
As the years went on, air travel became more affordable especially with the advent of low-cost carriers and just about everyone adopted the aeroplane as their default mode of transport. I did the same myself but just recently I am becoming more and more disenchanted with air travel, especially within the British Isles. With the post 9/11 security regulations at airports, cost of travel to out-of-town airports, check-in hassles and now the appalling practice of having to pay through the nose for checked baggage I really am fed up with it. I recently worked out that is just about the same time for me to get door to door from my home in central London to the centre of Edinburgh without ever going near a ‘plane. It is also immeasurably more comfortable and I do not have to produce my passport to travel within my own country which really does annoy me.

I should mention here the excellent Man in Seat 61 website which is literally all the information you need for train travel you anywhere in the world. It really is essential reading if you are going to ride the rails. It was there that I discovered this travel option and I decided to check it out some years ago. I like train travel and time is not a major concern for me.  So what are the details? At time of writing it was £68 each way and you can book online which attracts a small fee but it is possible to purchase them at this price until 1800 the previous day or from any major UK rail station.

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Heading for Chester.

My journey started at London Euston and involved a change at Chester. Some trains involve a further change at Crewe. I settled in my pre-reserved seat still feeling so rough I did not even fancy a coffee much less a drink. I did not even feel like reading which is unlike me and just sat and looked out the window at what was a pretty decent day. Had I wished to use my laptop, there were power points provided although you need to pay for wi-fi if you are not in first class.

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Far more comfortable than cattle class in a cheapo airline ‘plane.

The day had started OK but the weather degenerated the further North and West we went which was a shame. It was sad the weather was so foul as the little I could see indicated that there was some lovely scenery with the journey along the North Wales coast and its numerous holiday destinations and caravan parks, crossing the Menai Straits and then across Anglesey, or Ynys Mon as it is locally called. I do remember reading that this was the last place there were considerable numbers of druids before the advance of Christianity obliterated them.

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Trust me, you won’t get lost.

Here is the drill if you do take this route. The small railway station at Holyhead is actually the same building as the ferry terminal and is well signposted, you really shouldn’t get lost. If you should, for whatever reason, need the left luggage office (it was closed when I was there!), it is on the left at the end of the platforms as you walk towards the ferries. There is a shop and refreshment facilities. The pick up area is to the right as you walk from the station to the ferryport and if you want to walk into town the entrance to the left over the modern new walkway will lead you there.”

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Across the Irish Sea.

I still was not feeling great but this was to prove the least of my worries. The route is jointly operated by Irish Ferries and Stena Line and I was due on the 1715 fast boat which, even allowing for the bus transfer in Dublin would leave me in plenty of time to get the Enterprise train North. I joined the queue and waited, and then we waited some more to the point it was clear we were never going to depart on time. We had our bags screened by security and let in a waiting room which certainly fulfilled its function as we waited, man did we wait! Included in the passenger list was a group of about thirty or so pupils from Bocombra Primary School which could potentially have been a right pain but in fairness to them and their teachers they were very well-behaved if a little noisy. We eventually got the bus for the short transfer to the ferry and it was nearly 1900 before we cast off and got underway. I knew that my 2050 train was looking extremely doubtful. What annoyed me was that at no point did I hear any explanation as to the delay although I am guessing it may have been to do with the very thick fog.

Again, I shall return to my earlier writings to describe the boat.

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So much more comfortable than flying.

“The boat was a huge improvement on the cattleships of my distant memory with a lot of things to keep you amused. There are various eating and drinking options, large screen TV’s, comfortable lounges and even a cinema (extra charge). I have to say that the price of food and drink is pretty high onboard, probably something to do with the captive audience thing. Euros and sterling are both accepted and basically if you buy something in sterling then you get your change in sterling and the same with Euros.”

Comfortable as it was I neither ate, drank nor even read and was content to vaguely watch the news on the large screen TV and try to doze. There was certainly nothing to see out the window but fog.

We arrived in Dublin very late and I went to the bus where I paid my €3, having made sure I had some € on me. Last time I did not and was completely ripped off at the desk who changed € to £ at one for one. At this time of the night, there was nobody even on the desk so I would have been completely stymied. Had the bus left then and there I might have just made the train but the driver sat put until the people who had stowed their baggage had retrieved it from the baggage carousel. He seemed in no hurry with the driving either even though there was no traffic at all. The upshot of all this was that I arrived in Connolly Station 12 minutes after my train had departed. Brilliant!

I was sure it was a forlorn hope but I went to the information desk and, rather more in hope than in expectation enquired if there was another train that night which of course there wasn’t. I was effectively stranded in central Dublin on a Friday night with no accommodation and probably little chance of getting any. The guy on the desk was very helpful and phoned the bus station for me but nothing doing there. When I asked him about somewhere to stay he suggested a hotel just across the road or, failing that another one just around the corner.

The first one was posh, obviously expensive (Dublin is a very pricey city) and full. Ditto the second. The friendly young lady there suggested a nearby street near the bus station where there were several possible options. Her directions took me along a particular street and, lo and behold, what was there but Jacobs Inn, a sizeable looking hostel. At weekends Dublin is a magnet for hen and stag parties and I wasn’t really hopeful but it really was any port in a storm at this point. I wandered up to the desk and enquired to be told that I was in luck and I secured the very last bed in the establishment. The young man on the desk rather apologetically told me it was a 12 bed mixed dorm and it would be €36. “It’s the weekend,I’m afraid”, he said.

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Jacobs Inn, a very welcome sight.

Even at 58 years of age hostels don’t bother me at all and I rather enjoy them in many ways as they are much more sociable than soulless corporate hotels and are great places to meet travellers. Having been in the Forces, communal living does not bother me in the slightest and in matters of accommodation all I really require is a clean bed long enough to fit my 6’5″ frame and a decent amount of hot water (or cold depending on the climate obviously) to shower in.

For some reason, probably operator error from this technophobe) I could not manage to ‘phone or SMS my brother to let him know the situation albeit that he was less than 100 miles away as the crow flies. I suspect it was because I was in another country although I really do not know. I sent him an e-mail from the dorm on the fast internet wifi, then headed for a look round.

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Jacobs is one of the “new” breed of hostels that I made so much use of on my unexpectedly extended wander around Europe last Spring / Summer which will eventually form the basis of yet another travelogue as it is a Hell of a story. They are such a far cry from the places I hostelled in right back to the 1970’s with curfews, chores, lights out and no TV!  I really do rate them as a travel option in the 21st century and I am glad that the 26 years age limit is long gone or I would never get in. Whilst it is not common, neither is it unheard of for me to meet people of my own vintage. Beware you youngsters, the grey travellers are coming! It is a subject I shall return to in future.

A quick exploration showed the hostel to be spotlessly clean and well-kept with all the usual facilities and boasting a fourth floor roof terrace where I went for a smoke and which offers fine views over the city. Those that know me will find my next statement all but unbelievable but I was in Dublin City Centre on a Friday night with some brilliant pubs within about a 400 yard radius and I did not even go out for a single pint of Guinness! I sat drinking bottles of water in the company of three young American girls watching some American TV police drama on the large plasma TV. Normally I wouldn’t even think about watching something like that but I still didn’t feel up to doing much else and it did actually turn out to be reasonably enjoyable, something about a serial killer and FBI criminal profilers, just don’t ask me what it was called. I took my leave of the ladies and turned in a touch before midnight. Dublin will still be there next time.

As I was getting ready to “hit the pit” I had a look round the dorm and saw that most of the bunks were still empty so I was more or less prepared for a night of little sleep as various drunken rowdies returned at all hours of the night. In the event, the young people were impeccably behaved, tiptoeing about and whispering very quietly and still I got not a wink of sleep. I did give it a good go but I have a sleep disorder and am generally fairly nocturnal. Coupled with the fact I had been dozing most of the day, the warm embrace of Morpheus was never going to happen. I have learned not to even bother fighting it and lay there reading my book to pass the time.

I know that technically I am now into the 3rd of June so I shall break this here or it will get untidy.

Technical note.

Due to me feeling so bad I didn’t take any images on my way to Dublin so the images here are all from previous journeys although nothing has really changed and they are here merely to provide an idea.

Stay tuned and spread the word.