Mr. Waffle and I were in Northern Ireland for the weekend and we had an excellent time. I had already drafted an exciting post on this which wordpress in its wisdom made disappear completely. If my tone is less effusive than you might expect then attribute it to this very annoying technical glitch. On the other hand there was someone (Evelyn Waugh? Henry James?) who used to improve his writing by tearing up his first draft and throwing it in the bin and then re-writing from scratch. I suppose I can only be grateful to wordpress for giving me the opportunity to test this myself. However, if the post turns up again (as they sometimes do – technology, a mystery), I will be incandescent.
Friday, March 3
We left after lunch leaving the guys home alone for the first time ever. You might say that they are 17 but we felt quite daring. As we were leaving, Dan was going into town to meet a friend and Michael was disporting himself home alone. The journey up was quite short and uneventful. We stopped for a cup of tea in Hillsborough which was about 15 minutes from our destination. There continues to be a significant dearth of nice places to get a cup of tea at 4 in the afternoon, North and South. Sadly, Hillsborough is no exception to this general rule though a pretty little spot. I always find it slightly strange to see school children in Northern Ireland. Whereas school uniforms in the South are now mostly slightly vile nylon tracksuity things, the school blazer is very much alive and well in the North and in Hillsborough I saw boys in short pants which, honestly, I thought had disappeared in the 60s.
The place we were staying – which I would truly recommend – was delightful. It’s a bit in the middle of nowhere but everywhere is pretty close in Northern Ireland, so I wouldn’t let that put you off. It’s a country house and the owner does the cooking himself. The food was really superb and the place was lovely. We had booked in for two dinners which I had had some reservations about but I needn’t have worried. Breakfast was amazing also. The place was full of Dubliners cackling with glee at the great value they had unearthed. It compares extremely favourably with the South and, honestly, the food was as good as I’ve had anywhere.
Dinner was not, however, the unmitigated delight we had expected. Michael was home alone at 9, no sign of Dan and Michael was waiting for him to order pizza. I immediately began to picture him dead on the roads (default mode) but honestly he had met his friend at 2, why wasn’t he home by 9? In fact, he had been home and gone out again. I had completely forgotten that he had GAA training later and that was where he was. Everyone was a bit grumpy on the home front.
Saturday, March 4
We were up with the lark. After a very hefty and delicious breakfast, we took ourselves to Carrickfergus where we inspected the impressive Norman castle. It’s, I think, the best preserved Norman castle in Ireland and has a dramatic setting right on the sea.
We went for the guided tour. It was not great, I honestly didn’t know a lot more about the history of the castle after than before. There was a bit of generic stuff about how people lived in a castle in the middle ages but nothing more really. I am not one to praise the OPW (which inter alia manages national monuments in the South) unneccesarily, however, their guides are truly excellent. There seems to be a culture of local experts taking on the roles as seasonal jobs and they know the history of the monuments inside out and you always get the sense when you ask them a question that in giving the tour you are only skimming the surface of their detailed knowledge. This is not the case for Carrickfergus. It would probably have been grand for a school group or if there were kids on the tour, in fairness. But as the only people on the tour were four grown-up southerners standing freezing in the keep, I thought it wasn’t optimal.
Mr. Waffle has a colleague who is married to someone from Carrickfergus and he asked him for lunch tips but the bleak reply came back, “There is nowhere.” Slightly disheartening.
We pushed on to the Gobbins cliff walk which I booked ages ago. I don’t want to diss the Gobbins but it is a bit “health and safety gone mad”. It is a walk along the cliffs which you might easily do unaccompanied in about an hour. We were fitted with helmets, told not to bring rucksacks, only allowed to go out in walking boots and ushered very slowly along the walk. In fairness the guide was good and there was one exciting tunnel but it felt like complete overkill. It was designed by a railway engineer in 1902 as a tourist attraction and the shop is full of pictures of Edwardian ladies in long skirts trotting happily along the path (not wearing hiking shoes or helmets – although I think the helmets are to deal with frequent rock falls so, maybe a good idea). I had thought it was bolted on to the cliffs and there are bits where that is the case but mostly it’s just along the side of the cliffs. I mean absolutely fine but did it need 3 hours? That’s a firm no. In fairness, the slightly dawdling pace might have been better if it had been a bit less chilly.
I suggested that we stop in Carrickfergus on the way back so that I could buy socks (packing catastrophe). We drove into the centre of town but everything seemed to be closed at 4.40 on a Saturday which seemed extraordinary. We parked back in the harbour and began explorations on foot. There was an absolutely enormous Tesco but I have rarely met an approach quite so pedestrian hostile. I was genuinely unnerved by the murals on the way. I have spent quite a bit of time in Northern Ireland but I have never before felt nervous or unwelcome but I could not in all conscience recommend Carrickfergus which is a real shame. The castle is superb and the town itself could be lovely – some great buildings, a pedestrianised centre and only 10 miles from Belfast but the atmosphere is very unnerving. I must say the planning genius who put the main road between the town and the sea front didn’t help matters either. We pushed on back to lovely Moira which is definitely where we should have gone to buy socks. When we told our hosts about our trip, they all said variants of “Carrickfergus, Carrickfergus, you idiot Southerners, thank God you made it out alive.” It was more coded than that, “Oh Carrickfergus, that is a very…strange place.”
Anyway, dinner was again, a triumph but also yet again, slightly plagued by difficulties on the domestic front.
You will be pleased to hear that the house did not go up in flames though the soft fwump from inside the Aga gave everyone pause.
Sunday, March 5
Another superb breakfast and we waddled to the car and headed home. We stopped off in Strandfield outside Carlingford for lunch on the way home (recommended). I bought yet more flowers to supplement my very inadequate home grown spring flower showing. I said to Mr. Waffle, “I think I know what I would do differently next time we go up North”. “Well, we’d better get a move on to sort it out before it’s too late, we’re already so old that we are spending our Sunday afternoons in the garden centre,” he said gloomily. My garden centre attendance was definitely taken out of context but yet.
For your information, here is our “before” pots picture:
And now look!
I trust your own weekend was satisfactory.
Updated to add: filled with rage as former draft of this post has reappeared in my drafts looking like butter wouldnâ€™t melt in its mouth. If youâ€™re curious, yes, this version is better.