Friday, 31 July, 2020
We drove up North on Friday afternoon. As we sped across the border, herself announced that she had forgotten to pack socks. This triggered an unwelcome thought: I too had forgotten to pack socks. Unfortunate.
We stopped in Hillsborough for a cup of tea. The excitement of using foreign currency; red postboxes; funny number plates. Almost like being abroad though not quite.
We stayed in an airbnb outside Ballycastle. It was a family home and the family were there when we got there having just finished an extensive and, by the look of them, exhausting clean up. The family were lovely and gave us loads of great tips about places to eat and visit. They left us with a much used map of the area. Mr. Waffle had, naturally, already bought one of those but we forbore from saying so. They warned us off visiting Tor head, a local beauty spot on the grounds that Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe had closed it off to visitors (some class of film, I understand rather than a joint holiday).
The house itself was a triumph – I was delighted with myself. It was huge with a bathroom for everyone in the family and one spare. It had every conceivable kind of streaming service. I would highly recommend if you find yourself planning a trip up North.
We went into town to get fish and chips for dinner but, sadly, the place recommended by our hosts had just closed so we went along the sea front to Marconi’s which had the advantage of being open. They did look at us in disbelief as we asked for a table for 5: what now? Yes, it’s 9 in the evening and we would like to eat. Happily they managed to find us a table. It was grand and busy. Lots of Northern Irish accents – clearly they were holidaying at home as well. Food was fine and we were getting used to eating out safety precautions. I paid by card as I always do these days but wanted to leave a cash tip as the machine didn’t allow for tips (why?). I went up to the bar with a €50 note and looked for change but, sadly, as the staff pointed out, it was the wrong currency. Alas for the tip.
Marconi set up a station in Ballycastle and used it to transmit messages to a nearby island (Rathlin) hence the restaurant name. Did you know Marconi’s mother was Irish as was his first wife? Yes, yes, I’m a mine of fascinating information.
We went for a short stroll after dinner. Ballycastle is a really pretty little place – a traditional seaside town right on the beach.
It is also, wikipedia tells me, nearly 80% catholic and, if GAA club membership is a sign of that in the North (and I understand it is) then that may be why there were not one but two GAA clubs in town and loads of lads in GAA shorts and jerseys wandering around the sea front with their hurls over their shoulders.
Saturday, 1 August 2020
Herself was up with the lark and went on a looped walk nearby which our hosts had shown us. She got a bit lost but made it back eventually. I would have worried but I was in bed asleep so all well from my perspective at least. She was a little peeved that no one searched for her (her father is not a worrier so he had just continued calmly eating his breakfast and reading the paper).
Herself and myself went to the nearest Tesco in Ballymoney to get emergency sock supplies. A friend from Bangor once told me that when she went to the Antrim coast on holidays as a child they drove up through Ballymena and Ballymoney and her parents used to say, “If you weren’t so Ballymena with your Ballymoney, you could buy a Ballycastle.” It works better with a Northern accent and is also a handy guide to navigation.
On our way, we stopped off at the Dark Hedges which are about a mile from the house. The internet abounds in atmospheric pictures of the trees on this road. This is not one of them. The place is full of tourists (including ourselves) in day glo lycra (not us, in fairness) and it takes from the mysterious atmosphere.
Northern Ireland is rich in flags and Ballymoney had plenty of Union Jacks reflecting the more general Antrim demographic. We wore our masks in the supermarket as this is a thing in the South but not so much in the North and almost no one was wearing a mask except a cross older gentlemen who hissed at me, “Very disappointing to see the staff not wearing masks, isn’t it?” I felt it was a bit rough to blame the poor old Tesco workers for the general environment so muttered something neutral into my mask. Handy for muttering, the old mask.
After lunch we went for a walk along Ballycastle beach which is lovely.
The town itself is a bit quieter away from the seafront but still reasonably busy and not as small as I was expecting. Sadly, though, the Ballycastle museum was closed for the duration of our stay.
We wanted to go for a cup of tea in the flash hotel outside the town recommended by our hosts and it did look enticingly lovely with lots of chintz when we ran in from the driving rain outside but, sadly, they could only offer us a seat in the courtyard where a number of depressed looking tourists were gathered under a canopy. We decided against.
When we got home, we had planned to do the loop walk but it was still lashing, so we settled down to watch “Hamilton” which was available on our hosts’ extensive TV package and which I was curious to see. We know all the songs from hearing herself sing them around the house. Nevertheless, a stage production on the TV just isn’t great, I feel. It’s also quite long, isn’t it? We saved the second half for the following evening. Something to look forward to.
Sunday August 2, 2020
Mr. Waffle and I went to mass. I didn’t bring the children in case we couldn’t get in but we could. I felt a bit bad spreading illness to the elderly particularly since the priest kept telling us all how we didn’t have to come.
After mass we decided to seek out a nice cafe for breakfast. We bought newspapers from across the spectrum to enjoy with our breakfast. We asked a young woman in the supermarket for advice on breakfast venues. “Ardoyle’s,” she recommended. Extensive internet searches did not unearth Ardoyle’s. We did, however, eventually get to “Our Dolly’s”. Northern accents, though delightful, present their own unique challenges to Southerners.
Our Dolly’s provided a hearty breakfast but was not what I would describe as a healthy option.
In the afternoon we went to Murlough Bay (ancestral home of Roger Casement and where he wanted to be buried, apparently). The drive there was beautiful (if a little unnerving at times) and the beach at the end of the drive was delightful. Dan and I went for a swim. It was definitely my coldest swim of the year but I enjoyed it in retrospect.
That evening I went for a walk to Pan’s rock on the beach at Ballycastle (more lovely views) and had a look at the ruins of a friary across the road. I went on my own as I felt that familial tolerance for both these activities would be low. The friary boasted the grave of the local “black nun” a 17th century “recluse and prophetess”. I have not come across black nuns before so that was novel. They also claimed that the ruins possibly contained the grave of local hero “Sorley boy” or Somhairle Buí in Irish. He was quite the character and in any exploration of this part of the world, he crops up very regularly.
I insisted on watching “Hamilton” to the end. It was hard going.
Monday, 3 August 2020
Myself and herself went to test out a cafe at Whitepark Bay recommended by our hosts. It was an excellent recommendation. We enjoyed it very much. We drove home by the coast and the scenery was spectacular. We stopped off at Ballintoy which is a pretty little harbour. I tried to take a mother/daughter selfie but the results were not entirely satisfactory due to my ineptitude. Some of the party were quite amused by this.
We then did a pretty thorough exploration of the shops of Ballycastle and did our bit to boost the local economy.
In the afternoon we went to Glenariff for a walk (it’s one of the nine glens of Antrim – all of which I can now name, you will, doubtless, be delighted to know). There was some tetchiness on the way there due to a difficulty with directions. As we u-turned for a second time, herself intoned dolefully from the back seat, “Ah yes, Cushendall where my parents got divorced.” You will be pleased to hear that after the strain of getting there, it was a lovely walk. Filled with wild raspberries. Does this strike you as odd?
We went for a reviving cup of tea afterwards. A great value excursion yet again as the UK Government has a scheme to encourage eating out in Covid times – you get 50% off your bill up to a maximum of £10 per person on Mondays- Wednesdays. What’s not to love? We missed it when we came South, I can tell you. I had a German biscuit a delicacy I had come across for the first time earlier in the day. Appealing. It was nice to see it wrapped in clingfilm as well as this was the first establishment that we’d been in that hadn’t got a 5 out of 5 hygiene rating.
We bought some Northern Irish crisps for research purposes. I was particularly intrigued by the gammon and pineapple flavour. I regret to have to report back that despite its tasteful, upmarket crisp packaging, it was not a success.
When we got home we had another look at the options on our hosts’ streaming service (including Amazon Prime, lads – our principles forbid us from buying from Amazon at home but if someone else has already paid for it, it’s fair game).
Tuesday, August 4, 2020
We were booked to get the ferry out to Rathlin island but we changed our booking in view of the dreadful weather forecast. We have never made a better decision. It bucketed down. Leaving Michael to enjoy staying in bed, Mr. Waffle, herself, Daniel and I went back to the cafe in Whitepark bay. I was enthused. Daniel said, “Honestly, sometimes you are like a middle-aged child.” Harsh but not unfair.
We were perhaps a bit peckish as we waited for breakfast and herself did not add to the cheeriness of the wait by commenting during a gap in our desultory conversation, “If you could all be just 10% more interesting…” Happily breakfast arrived before any of the party was murdered.
I had to check in with work which I did not love but it was ok. I may have said this before but it’s really struck me – we’re not working from home we are living at work – and I do not like it.
To cheer myself up, I went in to Ballycastle and bought an enamel ewer. My mother would be appalled if she knew what I paid for it and there is almost certainly one lying around in the attic of my parents’ house in Cork although, probably not one that was made in China, in fairness.
After lunch the rain showed no sign of letting up so I tried to drum up enthusiasm for a trip to the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Herself came. We had a nice time in the museum looking at art and arrived just in time to be let in as ticketless walk-ins. Gratifying.
I enjoyed the crochet sphinx.
Also a painting of Fair Head from Ballycastle beach which, for your delectation, I have artily juxtaposed with a snap I took myself of the same view.
Then we hit the shops and went for a cup of tea before heading back north to Ballycastle. All in all a very successful little outing. One of the things that really appeals about Northern Ireland is how close everything is.
Meanwhile in Coronavirus news, it was announced that re-opening of pubs in the South was to be further delayed. Not a great sign.
Speaking of signs, omens, portents, we all moderately enjoyed watching the dramatisation of “Good Omens” on Amazon Prime. Cast of thousands.
Wednesday, August 5, 2020
We went on our deferred trip to Rathlin island. I think we all liked it more than we expected to. The ferry ride over was superb. You go across the Sea of Moyle and I quoted the “Song of Fionnuala” at the children – “Silent O Moyle be the roar of thy water” etc. – which, as you can imagine, they enjoyed very much.
The rain held off and we went for a walk on the island. It felt like we pretty much had it to ourselves. It is lovely and with loads of points of interest to walk to and practically no cars.
Herself had read a short history of the island with an emphasis on the fate of the Irish language and regaled us with various anecdotes. We found the author’s grave in the C of I graveyard – I thought that meant he was Protestant but it turned out that they take all denominations there which surprised me a bit. There’s a catholic church on the island as well. The graveyard was full of interest. My favourite grave – from a very competitive field – was the one erected by Prince Albrecht of Waldeck.
I spent much of my time in Ballycastle working my way through James Pope-Hennessy’s biography of Queen Mary (600 odd pages, like the curate’s egg) and, in consequence, had a greater grasp of minor German royal houses than I am ever likely to again so I was able to place Prince Albrecht. Why was he on Rathlin? Herself knew from her history of Rathlin book that the Gages were the big family locally (mixed reviews) and following some research it transpired that Dorothea Gage had married a German princeling. Probably some class of relation to Queen Mary. Small world, eh?
I got a couple of messages from work but, overall, it was a relatively peaceful day on that front.
We had another stroll on Ballycastle beach that evening after our return from Rathlin and herself made dinner. A thrill. Though not as big a thrill as getting a message from Expedia that our flights to America were to be refunded followed by actual refunding. And, even though I diligently saved up to pay for them, it felt very much like free money rather than the product of careful saving. I was extremely pleased. It was shortly after this that I noticed the palms of my hands peeling from continual use of hand sanitiser as I nipped in and out of the souvenir shops in Ballycastle sharing my good fortune with them by purchasing pictures and assorted tea towels and the like. Middle aged thrills. Good job Expedia, in fairness.
Thursday, August 6, 2020
Due to some logistical issues, we ended up going back to Our Dolly’s for breakfast. I regret to say that it continued unsatisfactory.
We went up the town to the post office to deal with my stamp difficulties. The UK has a thing called 1st and 2nd class stamps which are unknown elsewhere and I got confused (insert your own joke about the British class system here). The woman in the post office looked at me pityingly but addressed my difficulties. Like all people in Northern Ireland, in my experience, she was shocked by wanton waste of money and when I said give me all international stamps and even if I send some within the UK, they’ll get there anyway, she looked at me in horror. But I was Expedia flight refund rich and went for it anyhow.
Mr. Waffle, herself and myself went to the Giant’s Causeway. The boys refused to come on the grounds that they had seen it before. I felt it might be worth seeing again but they ranged themselves firmly with Dr. Johnson in this matter.
Graffiti from the 1790s for your delectation.
Dan and I went for a swim on Ballycastle beach later. Bit chilly but pleasant and nothing is ever likely to be as cold as Murlough beach.
As it was our last night in Ballycastle, we went out for dinner to O’Connor’s bar which was a success. They took our temperature on the way in which was the first time we had had that since Kinsale in July. I suppose it’s a good way to weed out the actually ill.
We picked up some of a local delicacy which looks like Crunchie but in texture is more like a stick of rock. Information I wish I had had before I bit into it for the first time. Quite nice though.
Friday, August 7, 2020
We took off for Derry. We stopped off at Dunluce castle. It is very impressive. Some guidebook tells us that a wing fell into the sea at one stage taking a number of servants with it; so very close to the sea. It was originally built by someone else but, inevitably, Sorley Boy, took it off them. Apparently it was the inspiration for Cair Paravel in the CS Lewis (from Belfast, of course) Narnia books and I can totally see that.
Even the children agreed it was quite spectacular. Then we went back into Bushmills for a browse before lunch. It’s a pretty little town with a famous distillery, many British flags and a nice statue celebrating Ulster Scots. The post office boasts an extensive collection of Visit Ulster posters but, sadly, not the one I wanted. The post mistress seemed genuinely devastated for me but I bore up alright.
In the Diamond which is what they call the central town square in Northern Ireland (I wonder at what point in Irish geography does the Diamond become the Square?) there was King Billy supporting the NHS. Northern Ireland is an odd place in some ways.
After lunch we drove on to Derry in driving rain so my proposal that we should have a brief stop off at Mussenden Temple was vigorously vetoed. By the time we arrived in Derry, the rain had stopped. Our hotel was in the centre of town which meant that there was no parking at the hotel but on balance, it was well worth it for the location. Some tension in the car as in the midst of navigation, I had to field a work call. When we got to the hotel (which I would really recommend by the way – Shipquay hotel), the others collapsed and I dealt with my work issue. After an hour or so, Mr. Waffle and I went for a stroll around the walls leaving the children to bond with the hotel.
Obviously, I knew Derry was a walled city but I had no idea it would be so impressive and so compact. It’s a planned city and it’s very easy to navigate around. I was charmed as we walked around the walls.
And there was an Irish flag just outside the walls at head height from our position on the ramparts. Closer inspection revealed that it was on a very high pile of pallets and likely to be set alight later in the evening. So there was that.
That evening we went out to dinner in a lovely pizza restaurant across the road from the hotel. All of our ordering was done online by phone and then the staff brought food – very speedy – and we paid by phone too. Sadly, a very loud party of six was seated immediately behind us. We seem to attract party groups. The children spent some time explaining Reddit to me. “There’s a r/ for everything,” explained Michael. “Even for Mary of Teck?” I asked dubiously. “Everything,” he assured me fervently, I’ll show you when we get back to the hotel. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that there is not, in fact, and r/ for Mary of Teck.
Meanwhile on the Coronavirus front, three counties were shut down in the Midlands – Laois, Kildare and Offaly. Not great news, then. In slightly related news, herself said that the UK was going crazy over A level results – “Just another incident in the Class of 2020 carnival of horrors,” she observed sagely.
Saturday, August 8, 2020
Breakfast in the hotel was excellent and the staff were absolutely lovely. In fact, everyone we met in Derry was particularly friendly.
We dragged the children out for a walk around the walls. Somewhat to our surprise, there was an extremely heavy police presence. About a dozen policemen with enormous guns. I asked one of them what was going on. To my surprise, he had a Cork accent, there’s cross-border policing for you. He explained that it was the day of an important Orange March but due to Corona virus it had gone ahead in a much reduced form. As we walked on a couple of bowler hatted gentleman with sashes walked briskly past and smiled at us remarking what a lovely day it was – as indeed it was. I’m glad all the same that we missed the usual parade. I am indebted to a local Northern paper for the following background information:
The Apprentice Boys have cancelled their annual August Relief of Derry parade because of the Covid-19 crisis. Held on the Saturday closest to August 12, the Apprentice Boys march commemorates the end of the 1689 Siege of Derry. The event, which is the single biggest parade in Northern Ireland annually, attracts thousands of Apprentice Boys, bands and followers every year. …Confirming the move yesterday, the organisation said the decision to cancel, planned for August 8, was taken with disappointment.Irish News
Honestly, you would have to feel for the NI tourist board. A friend of mine from the North told me this joke. What are the months in Northern Ireland? January, February, March, March, March…
The children pronounced themselves reasonably impressed by the almost entirely intact 17th century city walls. They particularly liked the fact that they could trot back to the hotel very easily from there.
The children went back to the hotel while Mr. Waffle and I had a look around the Guild Hall. Mildly interesting and quite an appealing civic building which has recovered from fire and bombing. There was a book of condolences for John Hume in the main room upstairs. Downstairs was a plantation of Ulster exhibition which was probably a bit more interactive when initially opened.
Also, who has a stained glass window dedicated to her? Queen Mary, that’s who.
We then had lunch and a little break – the risk of sunstroke was very real. It was boiling. Mr. Waffle took Daniel to the O’Neill’s superstore where he got a Cork GAA top (sadly only his second-favourite county team) and herself scampered off to explore the joy of Superdrug a large pharmacy/make-up retailer unknown in the South.
At 3.10 we turned up at the local history museum but last entry was at 3. Who has last entry at 3 on a Saturday? Who? Corona virus hours, I suppose. We took ourselves outside the town to dutifully look at the murals in the Bogside and the Free Derry wall (like King Billy, a supporter of the NHS).
We nearly expired from the heat. Who would have thought it? In Derry, in August.
For dinner we went to this restaurant outdoors across the road from the hotel. There was a sort of outdoor shopping area amid Georgian stables and it was actually very nice. It boasted an impressive mural (Northern Ireland, home of the mural) – apparently Derry used to have an absolutely massive garment industry.
We had our dinner in a place called Soda and Starch and it was possibly the nicest meal we had over the whole holiday. We were tired, hot, hungry and foot sore when we arrived and we left entirely restored. And we only had to stroll across the road to the hotel. A big success. I only have a before picture.
I made everyone walk across the bridge over the Foyle after dinner.
Everyone else was a bit tired after this but I still fancied a further walk around the city walls. Mr. Waffle came too. There were a load of young teenagers drinking on the walls and I was suitably outraged and said in middle-aged matronly way, “Where are the PSNI now then?” When we got a bit further, we saw that the gates in the wall were locked. We turned back and went the other way and found that the police were all patrolling with their guns around the loyalist part of town. I’d forgotten about the Orange March but it was clearly still a big day locally and there was maybe a bit of tension.
We decided it might be time to head back towards our hotel. It wasn’t exactly intimidating but it felt like it might get a bit exciting later. The armoured car trundling down towards the river reinforced that impression.
Sunday August 9, 2020
After a sustaining breakfast in the hotel, we took ourselves to the museum. Lots of history. Someone said of the Balkans that they make more history than they can consume locally. The same is true of Derry. There was a lot about the siege of Derry and Lundy’s betrayal (not a popular figure locally) but also about the development of the city over the years and there was an exhibition on partition which we all found pretty interesting.
Then we headed back to the house and picked up our bags which had mysteriously multiplied. I think we can agree, though, that the Tesco bag for life is a classy addition to any luggage collection.
We drove in to Donegal and ended up stopping for lunch at a luxury hotel which was not at all our intention but pubs and standard lunch spots were few and mostly closed so there you are. It was grand.
Then we drove out of Donegal and out of Ulster and in to Connaught. Stay tuned for the next exciting update.