2009 - Ireland revisited
Our second foray into Euroland began with a celebratory dinner at the Kasturi, a well-known Indian restaurant in downtown Southport. For five of us at least, as our medical officer was busy boosting his expenses bill at a health conference in uptown Cardiff. With his wife, no less. A rendezvous was therefore arranged at the Norfolkline ferry terminal in mid-town Birkenhead, and much to my surprise, successfully achieved. A brief quote of a reference number, a flash of photographic ID, and we were through into the inner waiting area. A few cars joined us, but mostly it was lorries.
The loading procedure was reminiscent of a circus ride. It started on a fairly innocuous-looking landing stage, with a hard left to avoid the fatal error of boarding the Dublin ferry, followed by a sweeping curve onto the loading ramp, and we thought we were there. However a uniformed official had other ideas, and pointed us firmly in the direction of a second ramp, equipped with ominous-looking, and ominous-sounding anti-slip markings.
The reason for such provision immediately became clear, as we were launched up a steep slope that threatened to test the driver-vehicle combination to the limit. Just as it seemed we were inevitably to be catapulted onto a maritime version of the wall of death, we emerged onto the top deck of the ferry and some welcome flat parking areas. At the far end we espied a well-preserved Mini, looking far younger than its 29 years, if the number plate was to be believed.
The cabins were functional but more than adequate, as was the midships bar, the aft bar, the min-casino and the restaurant. This last served dinner that was not only filling but also included in the price of the ticket, so we were compelled to put the Indian meal firmly behind us and ensure full value was secured from our investment. Mid-way through dinner a steward appeared and pulled the curtains across the front windows firmly closed, although it was by no means dark outside. One hoped no such procedure was being carried out upstairs on the bridge.
Outside dusk descended only slowly, and we were able to enjoy watching first of all the Dublin ferry depart from the adjacent dock, by means of a stately three-point turn in front of the Liverpool water-front. The lights of our beloved Bootle came next, followed by numerous lights that seemed to be moving. One pair in particular seemed to be closing fast, accompanied by lines in the water that looked suspiciously like torpedo tracks. Fears that the U-boat tied up at Birkenhead as a tourist attraction had somehow slipped its moorings and had come seeking revenge on its captors of sixty years, were eventually proved unfounded. Just a fishing boat.
The morning alarm call, courtesy of several mobile phones, was sounded earlier that we would have liked, but the promise of a free breakfast was stronger than we could resist. As we ate Belfast Lough slipped by either side and we were soon docking at our destination, surrounded by container cranes, container stacks and container lorries. As we tied up a Stena high-speed catamaran ferry pulled in a little astern of us, probably without any containers.
Leaving the ship required a firm hand on the steering wheel and a strong will to avoid breaking any speed limits for the descent into the bowels of the ship where lay the exit ramp. Once safely at ground level we headed north in convoy, initially in the direction of Londonderry but then south-west towards Donegal, in weather that seemed determined to emulate, if not improve on, the previous day's.
At Strabane we stopped for a coffee, the effect of an early start being that the town still seemed rather more than half asleep. Fortunately we found one cafe wide awake and functioning. En route we passed a baker's shop that seemed to take to heart the Irish reputation for dairy products of quality and quantity, with a good dozen square feet of counter space given over to essential supplies of cream cakes.
Suitably refreshed we passed on to Donegal, to seek out the local railway museum. This took several attempts, and two lots of directions from local inhabitants before we eventually found it. On one circuit of the town square we were surprised to see a van drawn up outside the bank with an escort of not only Garda but also of the military, complete with sufficient portable weaponry to deter all but the most hardened bank robber.
The museum was an interesting affair, cataloging the rise and fall of the local narrow-gauge systems with photographs, posters, models and audio-visual displays, supplemented by some static coaches outside. The lady in charge explained the lack of signs to the museum by saying that it was easy to find if you knew where it was, or words to that effect.
Lunchtime was approaching, but we decided to press on the twenty miles or so to Fintown, in weather that was turning increasingly warm. After a journey through country roads in scenery that looked decidedly Scottish, we reached a lake and soon afterwards spotted a railcar progressing eastwards alongside it. A swift overtaking manoeuvre and we pulled into the somewhat basic station facilities to await its arrival. It turned out to be a pair of vehicles, with a small diesel locomotive providing banking assistance (on almost completely level track) to the railcar.
After confirming the afternoon timetable we repaired to the local pub for lunch, only to find it served no food. Faced with a five-mile run back to Glenties for an alternative venue, we opted instead to gather a selection of supplies at the village shop, for consumption at a picnic table overlooking some particularly picturesque scenery. The train returned, departed and returned again, and this time we strolled back to the station and took our seats for a leisurely ride along the lakeside. At the far end we were a captive audience to a taped message describing the history of the line, its closure and its reopening, and we were driven sedately back again. In an adjacent yard were several other railcars and another diesel locomotive, all in considerable need of repair.
We drove onwards to a B&B on the outskirts of Letterkenny, a busy small town that sported a considerable number of new commercial and residential developments, no doubt part of the Celtic Tiger effect, before it caught cat 'flu. It also featured a one-way system, which the lead vehicle managed to negotiate no less than five times whilst a) re-establishing contact with the separated support vehicle, b) locating a shop selling camera cards and c) finding a suitable place to eat. This last was one of two Chinese restaurants we were to patronise during the trip. As a pre-dinner exercise we explored the eastern perimeter of the town for signs of previous railways. The stone-and-cast-iron bus station looked a good candidate for a restored railway terminus, circa 1908, further evidence being in the form of a hand-operated pedestal crane in the car park outside.
Next morning the first rainfall of the trip helped to wash the salt of the cars as we prepared to depart for the Bushmills railway at the Giant's Causeway, back in Northern Ireland. Despite entering the correct postcode for the railway we were directed by Sally the Satnav to the Bushmills distillery. Whether this was a demonstration of electronic good taste or of technical insubordination was not immediately clear, but later events suggested the latter. After a minor route adjustment we arrived at the railway, the Bushmills end of which consisted merely of a platform containing a newly-arrived narrow-gauge train, drawn by a steam engine named Shane. Perhaps named after the driver. The carriages were small boxes on wheels, just big enough for our six-man party.
After a couple of miles ride through wood and grassland we arrived at the terminus proper, complete with station, workshops and a carriage shed. We followed the rest of the passengers on a short walk up an increasingly steep road to a National Trust car park, always a sign of an Attraction with a capital A. Just past the inevitable gift shop and cafe was another road, this time going steeply downwards towards the sea, before disappearing around a corner. A bus stood invitingly at the top, and mindful of the likelihood that the visible corner probably wasn't the only one, we elected to use the vehicle rather than walk. Halfway along the road The Giant's Camel was pointed out to us, followed in quick succession by the Giant's Boot, Chimney and Organ. All contrivances of rock and an optimistic imagination.
Two corners later we arrived at our destination, the Causeway itself. Although slightly smaller than previously imagined, it was none-the-less impressive. Equally impressive was the number of visitors it was host to, from a wide spectrum of nations apparently intent in doing in a few decades what wind and wave had yet to accomplish in millennia, namely erode the structure to a shadow of its former self.
After a thorough examination of the edifice, and our contribution to its eventual disappearance, we returned to Bushmills by bus and train. This time the train was pulled by a diesel locomotive, complete with a set of roof-mounted horns that could probably be heard in Stranraer. The steam loco had been declared temporarily unfit for employment with injector problems. Possibly some form of psychosomatic neurosis brought on by being called Shane – one wondered if it had a twin called Sharon, or perhaps Tracy? We set off for our overnight accommodation in Ballymena, in one of a matching pair of large guest houses.
Next day we drove on almost deserted roads to the small town of Whitehead, the home of the workshops of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. A track off a road alongside a children's park opened up into a large yard full of assorted locomotives, rolling stock and associated machinery. We introduced ourselves to one of the volunteer workers, hoping the the deputy chairman's careful preparation for our visit had paid off. Fortunately they were friendly enough to overcome this obstacle, and we were treated to a thorough tour of the works and much detail on the Society's operations. The range of this works was impressive, and even included a small foundry for casting assorted items of railway infrastructure.
Our second stop of the day was at Downpatrick, for the Downpatrick railway. Unfortunately they had suffered a break-in the night before, and were unable to run trains, the local scenes of crime officer being fully engaged on the platform and station building with magnifying glass and fingerprint powder. We were however given our second detailed and informative tour of the day, by an apologetic and friendly staff.
After a late lunch at a local pub we drove to Castleblayney for our overnight accommodation. Next day the Cavan and Leitrim Railway was a considerable surprise. We were expecting perhaps a repeat of the Downpatrick railway, although hopefully without the criminal element. What we found was a treasure trove of old transport, of virtually every conceivable type. As well as a restored steam locomotive and numerous industrial diesels there were buses, coaches, ambulances, parts of planes, a German WWII glider and even a midget submarine, painted the inevitable yellow. It was run by another national treasure, known in the railway fraternity as 'Mad Mike', possibly for his slightly eccentric appearance, for his 'can-do attitude to preservation issues or for an eclectic and all-inclusive approach to selecting items for his personal attention. Or possibly all three.
We were treated to a non-stop flow of pertinent, and sometimes impertinent, information on a generous sample of the stored stock, much of which seemed to have a story involving royalty. As well as the steam locomotive, the available motive power included a large number of small diesels from the local peat-winning industry. Three of the smarter ones were lined up as our personal run-past photo opportunity, an event which included riding on two of them whilst Mike propelled us from the rear with the third. The finale was a run behind a slightly larger coach along the full length of the currently-navigable line, the latter part of which clearly demonstrated the need for Mike's latest invention, a home-made weed-killing wagon.
After a session buying T-shirts and finding other excuses to press modest amounts of money into our host's hands, we took a reluctant farewell. Pausing only to watch the local service train stop at the adjacent station, we departed south for the final railway of the trip, and the most problematical. We knew there were narrow-gauge railways in the area, supplying power stations with freshly-dug peat, but we had also been reliably informed that the associated tourist-carrying track was closed. Apparently it was being upgraded to a full-blown Tourist Attraction, possibly even a Heritage Centre. But not for a couple of years.
However local intelligence, from Mad Mike himself no less, indicated that a working peat operation was located nearby, and furthermore that a working power station was not far distant, and it might even suffer visitors to view its activities. We set off in optimistic mood, and quite soon came upon a somewhat nondescript collection of sheds, vehicles and tracks that looked vaguely peat-related. Our veteran ambassador was sent to negotiate with the handful of workers who looked as if they had had enough for the day. Whether they had strange visitors from abroad every other week was not clear, but they seemed quite happy for us to wander around and record what they were doing, or to be precise had just stopped doing.
The operational nature of the site was quickly confirmed by a small diesel locomotive which drove energetically past towing a wagon, the driver clearly needing to be somewhere else by the end of his shift. Peat-scraping machines and a briquette-making equipment were seen, along with a large pile of assorted track panels and serried ranks of sleeper packs.
A few miles further on a tall chimney emitting a plume of white smoke indicated a power station. This time the chairman took charge, and introduced himself to the shift manager. The latter was also unsurprised at the request to look round his domain, and spend some time explaining in detail just what went on there. We were granted favoured-visitor status, and allowed to wander around outside taking photographs of the train movements. Peat-loading had finished for the day, but several locomotives were seen coming and going with long trains of wagons, with the occasional light-engine positioning moves, ready for the morning.
At the end of an interesting and rewarding day we drove the few miles into Athlone and our accommodation for the night. Next day was rostered as time off for good behaviour, so we split up for an hour or two of recreational shopping before reconvening for a boat trip up the Shannon. This followed the normal routine for such expeditions, namely a steady cruise up-river with a running commentary by a cheery owner-driver.
However at the turn-round point the plan went off-message a little, as a large group of middle-aged men descended on the boat and rapidly filled up virtually every seat. One had an accordion, and it became abundantly clear he was not afraid to use it. And so as the rain clouds that had been threatening a downpour for some time finally delivered, we were treated to a series of popular (at least to the Irish male sterotype) songs, sung with considerable enthusiasm and varying talent. Well it helped to pass the time.
Back on dry land it was still wet, so we retrieved our vehicles promptly and set off in the direction of Dublin, for our final B&B and the ferry home. Negotiating the route to the docks was a little trickier than on the outward journey, but we made it, and had the pleasure of a millpond to sail on back to Birkenhead.
Just in case you thought all this happens with little or no effort, a blog of the planning process is here.