Wales to Ireland, June 2016
[Mark and Vicki have been traveling pretty much full time since they retired in 2008 and sold their home in Missoula, Montana. They RVed in Europe starting in 2009 for five years in their US Roadtrek, sold it in 2013, and then bought a European camper in 2015. So far, about 38 months in Europe. Mark blogs frequently with lots of pictures at www.roadeveron.blogspot.com. . Vicki's more practical guide to their travels is at their website www.TheRoadGoesEverOn.com.]
We had originally planned, well, as much as we plan anyway, to spend more like 5 days or so in Wales before going to Ireland. But with the decision to spend 4 nights at the Camping Show and do a return visit to Stourhead we were left with just two days. Our first day we spent at Powis Castle and Garden, home of the Herbert family for 500 or so years but especially famous for the daughter marrying the money to save the estate in the form of the son of Clive of India. Clive joined the East India Company as a lowly trader but got involved with the military end of it and rose quickly to the top. As head of Britain's military in India he became fabulously wealthy and carted home lots of valuable souvenirs which are now housed in the Clive Museum at Powis. In addition Powis has about a dozen intact State rooms stretching back to Elizabethan times. The State bed was slept in by at least three Monarchs though during the four times Prince Charles visited in the 1990s he choose another room down the hall. I asked if it was because of the lumpy looking featherbed mattress—No, the Prince travels with his own mattress—he just wanted a more “subtle” room. In 2010 we had not walked back to the woodland area as it was fall. This time we walked all three paths marveling at the rhodendren show. Fabulous and so few people were back there.
Our last Trust property for a while was Bondant Gardens. We hadn't gone before because the house is still in private hands, but the gardens are really, really amazing and just last year they opened up a huge new section following the valley. The Earl was president of the Royal Gardening Society for 30 years and then his son followed him. Giant, specimen trees line the valley, but this is not a Brown landscape all in green, but full of all kinds of flowers and flowering trees. With spring in full riot, the parking lot was full by noon even on a weekday. Plan on 3-4 hours. The night before we stayed right on the bay just 10 miles east of Conwy, a place called Llandula. Walking paths, toilets there but no water, it would be a great place for a couple of days rest if you have the time.
The ferry was calling for June 1 at Holyhead. We spent the night before at the long stay Stena Lines carpark at the ferry—for 3 lbs for up to 12 hours—longer for more money. The ferry crossing itself was smooth even with a stiff 20 mph wind. Cost was $475 round trip for two of us with the 6 meter camper—and that with the 10% savings we got by booking with the Camping and Caravan Club. I think it was pretty pricey. Immediately leaving the ferry we took the tunnel (3E) and then the M50 around to the Camac Valley Campground, the only one anywhere near Dublin. There is also a 3E charge for the M50 but no toll booths. You have to pay by phone by the next day. Luckily, the campground was willing to do it for us. We also took the opportunity to go to the local shopping center and get a Meteor SIM card with unlimited phone and 15G of data for a month for 20E. Way cheaper than anything in GB. The campground is 22E a night without electricity, 2E extra for a shower. I imagine in the summer you would need reservations. The bus into town is a slog of 50 to 70 minutes depending on traffic and 3.3E unless you get a LEAP card, then 2.6E. The bus only takes exact change in coins but does run until 11pm so lots of time to enjoy the pubs.
Which we did!! We loved Gogaraty's and especially The Church, which has not only traditional music Sunday to Wednesday, but also terrific Irish dancing. They do take reservations or get there early (by 6:30 or so) to find a table near the dancing. We did the whole Dublin thing—Book of Kells, Joyce walk, National Gallery (unfortuneatley mostly closed for reno) Archeology Museum (excellent), and, new to us, the Charles Beatty Library, which has the oldest copies extant of the Gospels and also ancient copies of the Koran and other rare books. All of these museums are free and fairly close to each other. The Book of Kells is 9E. We had dinner at a place recommended by the campground—Carlo Cafe. Not bad, but wouldn't go there again particularily. We wanted to try steak on a stone, which is advertised all over Dublin. It is a thick round of steak, seared 30 seconds on a side and then brought to the table on a piece of well insulated lava rock that has been heated to 280 degrees Celsius. You slice off pieces and cook further on the rock. Fun to do, but no elbows on the table with this meal!
We spent another couple of days in Dublin trying in vain to get our second radiator fan fixed. Mark has to unplug it when it won't turn off, so we can live with it. Which we will have to do for a while longer. One night we spent at a shopping center near a possible garage. It is on the near west side with bus service to the city. People said that they had seen campers there, and the security car passed us several times, so apparently not an issue. Gorgeous, large new mall across the street if you want to shop.
Next stop was Powerscourt Garden in the Wicklow Mountains just south of Dublin. National Geographic lists it third in the10 best gardens of the world. From the house (now turned mostly into shops with a few rooms open only on Sunday and Monday) there is an amazing view—we grant that. But after seeing Bronant in Wales and many others in England and the Continent, we certainly wouldn't give this one third place. Absolutely, worth the stop if you are nearby though. Driving on we reached Glendalough by 5 pm. The Wicklow Mountain National Park visitor center is also the visitor center for the ruined monastery. We visited before in 2009 but didn't take the walk to the Upper Lake. The monastery ruins are small compared to others we have been too, but the Upper Lake is really quite special and had very few visitors. Officially, we were told, you can't stay in the car park overnight, but no one would bother us. So we did and it was fine. Note though that parking is at such a premium on Saturday and Sunday that they charge 15E to park a camper. Free during the week.
We thought of staying another night but decided we were dilly dallying too much and headed for Waterford. We visited last time but at the height of the recession and there were no factory tours because the factory was closed, all production moved to Slovenia, and they didn't know if it would ever open again. Since the rich keep getting richer, the factory did reopen and the tour (11E) is tremenous if you have ever owned a piece of Waterford crystal or want to. Every piece is made right there. They were blowing rose bowls while we were there. Then we watched them cutting others pieces including the trophy for the NBA tournament. Fascinating. The shop is wonderful of course. Regular retail prices but they have everything currently offered and will do VAT refund. I do have some pieces in storage, so I confined myself to buying the cystals that hang from the chandliers at 15E each since they make great gifts for Christmas ornaments or string up in windows ala Pollyanna. We spent the night before at the train staion just before crossing the river to the city. 4.5E for 24hr, and of course, some noise. Parking lots in town are full of height bars but available on the street if you arrive early.
Rock of Cashel next up. Free with the Heritage Pass, the hour tour was very informative and we hadn't done the tour last trip. The parking lot is right at the Rock, no height bars, and fine to stay the night which we did. 4.5E for 24 hours. The town was fun to walk through with its tower house turned into a hotel and further monastery ruins. Who knew that the Trinitarian Order was formed just to raise money to ransom back the men from the Crusades? After Cashel we drove through Adare (too cute thatched roof cottages—easily a miss) but on the way stopped at Kilduff when we spotted a tower house ruin by the road complete with lovely, antique sign that promised a fine of 20 shillings if you didn't close the gate, and a cow underpass. At Adare I finally realized we weren't all that far from Lough Gur with the largest stone circle in Ireland and other less interesting medieval ruins, so we back-tracked. We do love our megalithic sites but this one just didn't impress.
During the day I had called the box office several times hoping to get tickets to the evening performance of the Irish National Folklore Theater in Tralee. We had seem the Fado, Fado performance seven years ago and liked it a lot. On Saturday and Sunday nights they were doing Turas—traditional music, dance and song from all over Ireland. At 6 pm they finally opened and called me that tickets were available. We were in the last three rows but still had a good view and the performance was really great. Most of the theater was filled with tour bus groups, so if you want to see it, don't count on waiting to the last minute especially in July or August. We stayed at the Woodlands Campground which is within easy walking distance of the theater for 25E with electric. Be sure not to miss Tralee's Rose Garden. You can get propane if you need it from Nolan's Garage.
All full of propane, water, etc. we set off to revisit the Dingle Penisula. Be sure to drive clockwise after you get to Dingle town if you don't want to meet the tour buses head-on on the almost single lane road that curves around Slea Head. We spent a fun hour in Dingle looking at shops in the rain though we missed the ones around the harbor which also looked interesting. The harbor has a pay and display lot with a section without height bars. The drive around Slea Head was gorgeous, and we stopped this time at the Blasket Island Visitor Center (Heritage Pass). Very informative audio visual presentation and lovely exhibits about the islanders who lived just two miles offshore on a tiny island 3 miles by 1. The government made them all move off in 1954. They even had their own dialect of Gaelic. You can visit the island by boat which we would have loved to do but the seas were much too rough. We continued a little further on and spent the night in a parking lot just down a short lane to a gorgeous cove along with another camper and a couple who pitched a tent. It was a dark and stormy night and we were oh so glad we weren't in a tent!
Another great day on the Dingle Peninsula. We visited the Gallarus Oratory as last time but also saw a terrific film on the penisula. Enticed us into also going to the nearby Kilmalkedar Church ruin to see ancient ogham stone, an early sundial and an alphabet stone which may have been used in teaching people to read—all from about 600-800 AD. We were intrigued by the wayside marker for The Monk's Way where recently an enscribed stone had been found. We followed the markers, crossing stiles and sheep meadows to the top of the ridge, but no stone. We also got lost by going through a gate not marked because we didn't hunt for the stile camofloged by all the bushes. You would think we would know better by now! Dingle is loaded with hedges of fuschia--I thought they only came as hanging baskets! And though we didn't find the stone, the views were lovely as were the wild flowers everywhere. Back at the Oratory for a late lunch in a flat parking lot, I asked about the stone—he hadn't seen it yet but it was supposed to be before the top of the ridge. But then he told us about the nearby Rusc monastic ruin. Yes, down a tiny road, but only for half a mile or so. Great walled enclosure, and remains of several corbelled buildings and standing stones with Celtic and Christian carving. After a trip to the Tralee Tesco we spent the night at Fenit Beach which we found through the motorhomingcraic.ie site that we joined. It is nowhere near as good as the English wildcamping site but if it finds us only two or three free overnights that will be good. There is a campground next to Gallarus if you want to go that direction.
Mark was under the weather with a bad cold and fever so we spent two nights at Fenit Beach and then drove for several hours north to Cong. Meanwhile we by passed several sights that Ireland first-timers wouldn't want to miss—the Aran Islands, the Burren, Cliffs of Moher. But once was enough. If you are thinking you will only be in Ireland once then we think 7-8 weeks would be enough time to see pretty much everything at a leisurely pace. Cong is known for its ruined Abbey carvings and they were okay but we wish Mark had been feeling better as the woodland paths leading from the Abbey looked wonderful. Not wanting to drive further and no free parking available (we parked behind the Esso station to see the Abbey) we spent the night at the nearby Cong Caravan Park for 24E. I also did two loads of wash which cost 26E—Ireland has the most expensive laundry machines in Europe! We did though go to the nightly showing of the film The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara which was filmed in Cong in 1950. Hokey, but interesting and lovely scenery. Apparently, Cong is also the fishing capital of Ireland too.
Another long drive (well, three hours) brought us to Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery near Sligo. Lots and lots of passage tombs and dolmen circles and nearby Knocknarea Mountain with a huge, unexcavated passage tomb on top. We spent the night in the parking lot. (N54.25312 W8.55805) Mark had a bad cold so we spent a couple of days there hoping he would get better to no avail. A crepe stand was manned daily by one of the neighbors and she said there was no problem in staying. In fact she eventually got us the address of a local doctor and even offered to drive us there if necessary. Mark was able to drive and also able to get a same day appointment. The verdict was a lung infection—45E and a prescription for antibiotics. We decided to go ahead and move to the Strandhill Campground nearby to get water etc. (22E) It is right on the beach which is known for its huge waves and lots of surfers. It is located on the exact opposite side of Knocknarea. Two nights at the campground and another two nights freecamping at Knocknarea found Mark well enough to visit the dolmens at Carrowmore and finally drive on north to Donegal.
In Donegal we stopped briefly to visit the Castle which was part restored tower house from the 15th century and an attached ruined Jacobean manor house. Only street parking is available and the site was nothing special. However, the reception fellow said that if we were headed north we might like to see the dry stone hill fort called Grianan of Aileach. It was special and the 360 degree views from there across the bay and over the penninsula were terrific. Note that it is only open from June 15 until early September.
We ended up spending the night at an actual camper aire at the tourist office in Buncrana. It is on the left just before you enter town. It is one of only four in Ireland and has free parking, water and electric by token, but no dump. We also got lots of literature on the Inishowen Peninsula which had been highly recommended in Kathy's (our illustrious editor) write up of their trip to Ireland. We left at 10:30 after grocery shopping and still did almost all the pennisula by 5 in the afternoon. If you need a place to wildcamp the parking lots at Pullan Bay and Inishowen Head had no signs and were level enough. We also stopped to try to see the Bocan Megalithic Stone Circle we had read about but there is no gate in the farmer's fence and the field was full of cows/steers with horns so we had to pass. The penisula has a dramatic coastline and the road up to the Gap of Mamore was particularily dramatic so the road to the Gap itself looked too narrow and steep for us to try. This part of the Wild Atlantic drive is like most of it—narrow and twisty, but most of the time you can see a good ways. Also there was little traffic. We are finding June a good month to travel in Ireland. It is still cool (highs in low 60s daily) and rainy, but everything is open and as of yet, uncrowded. I imagine that changes dramatically in July and August (but not the ever-present daily showers.) We had headed for what we thought was a wildcamping spot at Quigley Point but it was a campground. We tried a park in Muff, but the attendant came at 9 pm and said it would be locked up until 1 the next afternoon. We asked, and he suggested trying the Topaz/Centra gas station. Sure enough they let us spend the night in the carpark behind it and we reciprocated their nice gesture by filling up our tank. Diesel is cheaper in the Republic than Northern Ireland or England. (N55.06947 W7.26875)
Derry/Londonderry was only a short drive and we found parking on Sunday morning at a lot near the town walls. It was free but signage indicated it was soon to be a pay and display. There was also a camper already there that had obviously spent the night. (N54.99052 W7.32167) To make things easier, I will call it Derry. Derry to the Catholics who make up 2/3 of the population even though it is in Northern Ireland. Derry was the center of the London guild plantations in the 1600s, and that was when London was added to the name. The entire plantation story is illustrated in an exhibition at the Guild Hall which is free and open every day. The main attraction in Derry are its walls. Completely encircling the city, they were built to keep the Catholics out and were still serving that purpose in the Troubles in the 1970s and 80s. We find the story of the Troubles confusing but mostly immensely depressing and one of the reasons we skipped much of Northern Ireland last trip and why we aren't going to visit Belfast this trip. I have no interest in riding around in a black taxi to see where people were killing each other over religion and hatred that have lasted 500 years.
The National Trust owns several properties in Northern Ireland and we had decided to visit Mt. Steward on the east coast. Mark was still feeling under the weather so we broke the drive at Springhill near Drapersville. (This area of Derry was plantationed by the London Drapers Guild.) The house is a modest one but had some interesting artifacts. We especially were impressed by one of only four copies of the Order of Execution for Charles the First—signed and sealed by many but with Oliver Cromwell's signature number three and larger than most others. So few exist because it was death to own a copy after the Restoration. We had planned to spend the night at the on-site campground. But we were told policy had changed and you had to have advance reservations through the Camping and Caravan Club. Instead we drove the 12 or so kilometers to Standwell Campground. Only 10lb a night but our Garmin GPS sent us on a short cut through the wild and deserted hills down less than single lane roads. Thank heavens we only ran into 3 cars—are of which were startled to see us. GPS is less than reliable in Ireland. We have an atlas but of course all those little roads aren't named and Garmina usually uses names and not numbers for roads, so comparing the two is sometimes fruitless. Frankly, I like our Tom Tom better but when it was time for a replacement we went with Garmin as this model has lifetime replacement maps for Europe and North America.
I know many of you must think all we do in the British Isles is great houses—but, Mount Stewart near Belfast was indeed special. Considered by many one of the 10 best gardens in the world, we were quite impressed. The weather actually cleared today too! After touring the house and lunch, we came back from the camper to do the gardens. A large group had gathered in the front of the house and the head gardener was just introducting himself. Mark and I have joined 5 or 6 other head gardener tours at National Trust properties so felt really lucky as we hadn't seen a sign. The tour was terrific. The gardener had all sorts of interesting stories about Lady Edith who had moved permanently into the house in 1921 with the 6 or 7th Marquis and spent the next 35 years designing and planting (along with a garden staff that varied between 15 and 36). After 45 minutes, however, and only about half way through, one of the women wearing a National Trust badge leaned over to me to tell me this was a private tour. Very disappointed, Mark and I peeled off to examine other areas of the extensive grounds. We found out later that this was in fact a National Trust Tour with most folks coming from the south of England in Somerset. If you want a price shock, look up the cost of one of these tours! But they were certainly getting the royal treatment at Mount Stewart. Anyway, if you go to Ireland do not miss this house and garden. We were about 3 weeks too late for the rhodendron but everything else was still amazing. We found a nice picnic and kayak launching lay-by just a few minutes away on Strangford Lough and spent the night there. N54.55950 W5.62185
About an hour's drive or so brought us to Castle Ward at the southern end of Strangford Lough. By the way, just as we rounded the Lough on the northern end we were able to fill our propane tank at a gas station—can't remember the name unfortunately. Castlr Ward is a huge estate with several nice walking paths, a campground (20lbs for Trust/Royal Oak members; said to fill up fast), a mansion, and a Tower house with yard and wall that was Winterbourne in Game of Thrones. Instead of room stewards as in most Trust properties this was a guided tour by a woman named Christine Walsh. Our 45 minute tour ended up at 80 minutes and was full of stories about the families that have lived there and also about the way life was lived in Georgian and then Victorian times. Best tour guide ever and we learned so much. Had no idea that during the 1800s both men and women ate with their fingers from a single plate, food was served buffet style, and both sexes used urinals placed in the dining room as it was bad manners to leave the room before the end of dinner! Queen Victoria made the Russian practice of eating at the table, course by course, while being served by servants the new fashion. The number of dinner courses rose from six to 15 to 20 and chamber pots (which by the way matched the china pattern) were banished. But you still couldn't leave the dining room! A dinner for twelve went from about 50 pieces that needed washing up to about 500. So house servants had to be doubled or tripled. We especially oved the story of one of the Lords who wanted to be buried at sea in his beloved Lough. Unfortuneatley, three days later his coffin bobbed back up and servants were sent out in boats with guns to blow holes in its side. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that. This is why we love visiting these properties so much! Every one has many tales to tell besides their beauty. Since I am a fan of Game of Thrones it was fun to see the set. You could even (for a fee) dress up in costumes and get your picture taken where Jon Snow had been teaching Bran archery, but we didn't indulge.
Last stop of the day was the Prooleek Dolmen which is at the Ballymascanlon House in the middle of their golf course. It is about a 15 minute walk through the course—which was kind of fun. We don't play golf, so seldom get to see a course from the inside. There is the dolmen, which is a really impressive one, and right nearby a passage grave which retains one of its capstones. Though it made a long day we pressed on to Bru na Boinne, where we stayed at the Newgrange Lodge for 15E. It is right next to the visitor's center and we wanted to get an early start the next day for two of the best megalithic sites in the world. Bon Voyage until next month. Vicki and Mark