Another from the travel vaults. Although now a Cardiff photographer, this is from a 2007 road trip from Cheltenham to South-West Ireland.
A handsome looking dog sits on the passenger seat of the car next to me, seeming quite human in its polkerdot neckerchief. Its owner smokes idly, tatooed, pierced, bottle blonde and bored in her beaten up old car. Alerted by the sudden crunch of my teeth through an apple in the stationary car next door – it knows that sound – the dog turns around, stares at me, doesn’t avert its gaze.
Amused, I step from my car and ask if the dog is allowed an apple core, conscious of the mess it could make on the passenger seat. “Oh yeah course,” the lady bellows in an arrestingly deep, cockney tone. “She lavs apple cores.” The dog gently accepts the core from my fingers and I offer a quick scratch behind an ear. “Thank you!” her owner shouts as I resume my seat, and my wait.
I have a mild sulk about being subjected to a mandatory spot-check on passing through into the main queue for the ferry: a regular hassle for a lone, young, male traveler. I still haven’t learnt to accept it as reasonable. Would it be the same if I was one half of a couple? Or if I was thirty years older? An official’s brash Welshness and treatment of me as a suspect fails to reduce my irritation. “First time in Ireland?” (illegally exporting anything?) “New car, is it?” (stolen motor?), “got any ID?” I gruffly answer his questions through my window and complete his form. Eventually he finds no further reason to detain me and I’m permitted through.
From Rosslaire, a good three hours solid, simple, scenic driving takes me to Cork. I stop to refuel, have another couple of dry biscuits and a handful of dates, thinking my destination is probably now under an hour away.
A short time later, smaller, bumpier roads begin to persuade me otherwise. These roads stretch and wind on and on, under the never quite total darkness. As I chase the sun, villages and small towns come and go, sometimes without even a signpost. By 10pm the early start from Cheltenham is taking its toll and I’m growing tired, despite knowing I’m on the right track. Still the road keeps unwinding like a magician’s handkerchief. By 10.30 I think the Atlantic Ocean is a cunning ruse and America will soon be presented before me.
There are signposts for Bantry, Glengarriff; it’s getting close. By 11.15 there’s still a very dim ember of sun, glowing on the horizon. It feels like that glow has been there for hours. New York?
Paranoid about overshooting my final destination bar / campsite / hostel / boarding house / whatever it is, I stop at an isolated pub and ask two men exiting the building if they know the place where I’m heading. I need to listen hard in order to interpret the man’s words, massaged by accent and alcohol into one punctuation-free splurge of sound. Ach, of course they know it: 3 miles further on the right hand side. I haven’t passed it already.
Upon arrival a young man serving at the bar ticks me off his list, hands me a key, and gives what prove to be wholly inadequate directions to my room: out there, round the side, and up the stairs. He gives a clear indication that my room is in the same building, although I’m made nervous by his resemblance to Father Ted’s sidekick priest, Father Dougal.
Dismissing this, I presume that it can’t be difficult to find, and heave my bags to my shoulders, looking forward to seeing a bed. I wander off, grow confused, even more tired. There are no open doors or signs or anything looking faintly like accommodation. I go back to the bar and he offers to show me.
As we walk, I ask where I can hire a bike tomorrow. He furrows his brows, stops walking – as if walking and thinking this hard at the same time is a tall order. He looks down at the floor, concentrating. He is anxious not to get the detail wrong. “Right,” he says, like he has now prepared all his words. “If you go to the next town, Castletown Bere, and a store called Supervalue. Ask for Denys there, an he’ll sort you out.”
That drama resolved, he points me towards a narrow exit through the corner of the back yard, and over a lawn. My building itself is beyond, a small light over the front door. Why didn’t he tell me to take my car from the front of the pub and drive it up a short adjacent driveway?
Next morning I drive a short distance further along the sunshine-dappled coast to Castletown Bere. One of the first shops on the main street parade is indeed a Supervalue, opposite which a car park overlooks a pretty harbour. I park, go to the store and ask a timid looking eastern European checkout girl if Denys is about. She doesn’t understand me so I ask a native (Siobhan, her name badge reassuringly says). Siobhan gives him a call and Denys arrives promptly and cheerfully.
He shows me a short way up the street to a small hut full of bikes, and lifts one out from the mesh of steel and wheels. “It’s the easiest to ride,” he assures me, handing it over. And I can’t disagree. It looks a fine steed, light and durable.
The best part of a day’s pleasurable, unplanned cycling around various parts of coastline, hills and mounts is blighted halfway by my first bout of irritating hayfever this season. A stunning day, bright and warm, leaves me with a predictably sunburnt neck and upper arms, a bruised inside left knee – from a precarious rocky hill descent , and a regional back bruise from the edge of something in my rucksack.
The evening before leaving the site I try to pay my bill. There’s one very old bar (maid?) serving an old timer at the bar. Don’t be ageist, I tell myself, before explaining to her that I want to pay for my room.
“Mm!?” she suspiciously tilts her head towards me, her good ear, as if wondering what my game is.
I repeat myself, sensing this won’t be easy.
“Which room are you in?”
“Three,” I say, holding up three fingers in confirmation. She retrieves a folder.
“Room Three. That’s a family room. Hundred and ten Euros please.”
“Er, no, you see it’s just me: one person.”
“Look. It doesn’t matter, I’ll sort it out tomorrow.”
“Well I need to tell her you’ve arrived!”
“What? Who? No no, I arrived yesterday.”
“You arrived yesterday?”
She thinks me shifty. I think her a bit mad. How would I know what room I was in if I’d only just arrived?
“Ok, thanks, it’s fine, thanks, bye.”
Bantry proves a disappointment, with very little there to justify its bold, capitalised prominence on the map. I venture there in the evening, before heading a little further south to another small town, mainly because its name amuses me. That fails to entice too, so I return to Bantry, stopping at a fast food place staffed by another eastern European woman.
“Regular cod and chips please.”
“Cod?” she says, as if she doesn’t know the word.
“Oh, chips and fish?” she smiles, as if she has connected the word to something someone else has told her. She could do this!
I’m planning to sit in the fast food place and eat whatever she serves me. There’s a pleasant enough view onto the centre, it’s a little breezy outside and I don’t want to retire to my car just yet. I finger through a two-day old tabloid sitting on the counter, and half listen to the next customer go through a similar cod / fish routine. She heads out to the kitchen and returns about five minutes later.
“Chips and fish to go, 4.75!” she proudly announces, bagging up my meal and setting it down in front of me.
“No thanks,” I hand over the cash, take my change and decide to retire to my car with the substandard fish and chips.
Before driving back I go for a drink in an Irish pub. Sitting at the bar, I try and fail to discern what makes Irish Guinness so much different from Guinness served anywhere else. This is probably the first authentic “Irish Bar” I’ve been to in Ireland, having visited dozens in various countries across three continents. Never one in Ireland before. It’s not hugely memorable.
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