Day 08 – Tue 03 May 2005 – Across the Irish Sea

The train doesn’t  leave Swansea until midday, so I went out for another walk in the morning. Found a Post Office and sent a package back to my work address full of booklets and pamphlets from various museums I have visited to date. It’s a cool, drizzly, rainy day and people on the street are different from last night; typically just ordinary people heading off to work. Swansea even has something of a peak hour traffic snarl; well  for several minutes at least.

I went back to the shop that sells tartans and such. A very helpful guy serving. Wanted to know about who I was buying for, what Welsh names they had and so on, in order to select the best gift. I got Jolene K a nice Welsh knot brooch with a celtic design and a pewter love-spoon (apparently exchanged between friends according to the guy, but he might just be a bit of a long distance match-maker). He also gave me a sample of the tartan from Clare M’s dad’s clan, and a pamphlet on all their stuff to take back with me. Actually he was very typical of the Welsh; always friendly, helpful and approachable.

Swansea Town Square

Booked out of the hotel and went to the station. Didn’t have to ask for any directions; as soon as I look like a lost tourist the station staff ask where I want to go, but don’t ask to see a ticket. The train to Fishguard is already in the station, but doesn’t leave for another half an hour. Not many on the train as yet, but I’m seated behind a group of middle aged Irish women discussing the application of fake tans. Delightfully funny conversation, made even more so by the gorgeous accents. I always wondered how you avoided getting orange knees and ankles.

The train is a cute little 2 car diesel multiple unit (DMU). Like all British trains, this one has lots of ’emergency procedures’ signs and little hammers behind ‘break glass’ panels for smashing windows to escape a crash or fire. It chugs cautiously out of Swansea up an incline circling through the hills at the back of the town, then takes off like a rocket. We pass a large open plain surrounded by hills, with a lake in the middle that reminds me of Lake George near Canberra.

As we pass towards crossings the driver sounds a warning. It reminds me of my school days in the mid 60s riding a similar, but older, DMU from Liverpool to Campbelltown (NSW) before the line was electrified. There were only a handful of drivers on that run and each had a distinctive way of sounding its air horns. One even used to play a little riff, ‘daa-dee, daaaaaeeeeh-dum’ it went.

Forget that I said a lake, it’s actually an inlet from the sea. The fast section to Llanelli must be the downhill run. This driver is also quite the musician; he does different toots as we approach tunnels, waterfronts, places where people might be fishing close to the track or children might be playing (and there are lots doing that), or perhaps he just enjoys it. Actually he sounds wherever there are ‘W’ (‘whistle’) along the trackside. But as we speed through platforms he does a full ‘deeeee-daaaaa’.

A gloomy day on the train heading for Carmarthen

I’m sad to leave Swansea. Essentially it was just a stopover, but even in the small time I was there I really liked it. It’s flawed, but in beautiful ways, and has an aura of authenticity about it. It’s the sort of place where I think you could easily make really genuine friends. Curiously, the Welsh insistence on a separate identity makes them sort of more ‘universal’. They know their numbers are relatively small and they’ve had a history of being repressed by the English, which seems to make them really welcoming towards almost anyone else.

The section from Llanelli to Carmarthen is ultra pretty, though the day is a bit gloomy to get good photos. The train follows Carmarthen Bay, then up a river to the town itself. Rolling green hills, farms and grazing sheep crest each side of the seemingly pristine river. There’s a village and a castle across the river at one point. I try to get a photo, but captured the inside of a railway cutting instead.

As we approach Carmarthen we can see the remains of a castle inside the town area. Everything here is old; even the new bits are old! I remember now that the Carmarthen Hills is the original name of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. With the alternating headlands and beaches along this coast I can see how New South Wales got its name. The double-ended train stops at Carmarthen, then reverses out to take a different line ‘backwards’ to Fishguard.

Lower Fishguard

Shock-surprise: they even serve a light lunch on the train; coffee, tea, sandwiches, spirits, drinks and snacks; all off a trolley maneuvered down the aisle by a girl who can’t be more than 19. I noticed the price list includes a breakfast option, which must be for the earlier service that gets to Fishguard to link with a pre-dawn ferry. We pass through delightful ultra-green rolling hills, set with farms and settlements. At Clarbaston Road the line becomes single track. It’s made up in the old style with short section of rail jointed together, giving a ‘clickety-clack’ sound to the ride.

Now I had never heard of Fishguard; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t famous. It is in fact the site of the last invasion of Britain in 1797, when a force of 1,400 French soldiers landed there. It was part of a three-pronged attack to divert British troops from a wider invasion plot, but the other prongs failed due to ‘indiscipline and poor weather’.  The invaders surrendered two days after landing, apparently after many had consumed a large quantity of port wine they had come across.  The whole story is illustrated on the Fishguard Tapestry displayed in a hall in the town. Now that’s what I call HISTORY!

Fishguard wharf (station along the far side of the terminal building)

Arrived in Fishguard Harbour. The train station is on the wharf, parallel to the ship. I booked a passage on the ‘Super-Ferry’ to Rosslare in Ireland, departing in about 45 minutes at 1430. A loquacious and pleasant lady Police officer doing random checks on my baggage talked with me for 10 minutes about her time in Oz as a backpacker and the differences between Oz and Kiwi accents.

Once on board, I waited for departure on what was slowly turning into quite a nice day. The ship set sail exactly on time, maneuvered deftly out of the harbour and started making 17 to 18 knots across the Irish Sea. I spent the initial hour on the sun deck until Wales faded from view. Went below and began to read a book (“Hell has Harbour Views”) then had a little nap. Awoke to a PA announcement that we were half way across and (more importantly) that alcohol sales would be turned off in about 15 minutes. Went back up to the snack bar and had some chips and Coke and did more reading.

Leaving Fishguard Harbour

At about 1645, the duty officer advised the first sighting of Ireland would be a lighthouse on a rock on the port bow at about 1700. He was spot on. By now the weather is getting rainy again and I stayed inside. The ship has a bit of pitch and roll in the sea; not enough to make you seasick, but enough to make walking about a bit comical.

The main Irish coast looms into sight through the murk at 1745. A green marker buoy passes to starboard. We dock at 1800. Once off the ship it’s a fairly lengthy stroll down covered walkways to the terminal. It’s a strange feeling being the first person in my family to return to Ireland since 1831. Two Irish Customs guys are on duty. They’re not interested in checking me, but one nods and says, “Welcome home!”.

Rosslare Europort is more like an airport than a wharf. A very charming older lady at the Hertz counter organises me a vehicle (a Mitsubishi Colt, but it takes her three goes to get me to understand that). She gives me a comprehensive rundown on the vehicle in a very heavy accent. I’m not sure, but I think the younger girl running the competing rental car agency in the next booth is actually her daughter.

Drove out of the terminal heading for Waterford, a largish town next to County Tipperary. The road is a two lane highway with a wide side verge. I notice that trucks immediately pull over on to the verge if they think they might be holding you up. There are numerous signs (many in German) reminding you that in Ireland you drive on the left side of the road. The roads are fairly well sign-posted, in English and Gaelic, so there’s no need to use a map at all. There’s also many signs about speeding. They say, ‘Your speed determines whether you will survive a crash – get the point, not the points!’ While there are many signs about losing points, there are none about fines.

The countryside is very similar to parts of Australia, notably the north NSW coast, like around Ballina or Lismore. I discover later that both of those are named after Irish towns, not far south of where I’m driving. The houses are much more like those in Oz than those in the UK. There are a lot of separate bungalows with terra-cotta roofs. The towns still tend to have terrace houses in their centres, but they look much better kept than in the UK; almost everything looks newly painted.

Reginald’s Tower in Waterford

Arrived in Waterford around 1930 and booked in at the Tower Hotel, a nice old hotel and not too expensive. It’s opposite Reginald’s Tower, built originally in the 11th century although the present structure is 13th century. It’s where Strongbow (a Norman) married an Irish princess, thus justifying later English intervention in Irish affairs.

The statue of Thomas Meagher is also near the hotel. He was an Irish national who was imprisoned in Tasmania, but escaped and participated as a senior officer in the American War of Independence! He selected the design for what is now the Irish national flag.

Statue of Thomas Meagher

Waterford is set along a series of docks on the river and is a very pleasant little town. Ten years ago I suspect it was a bit run down, but there are signs of it being revitalised everywhere. Noticed there’s a local nightspot called ‘Masons’ (LOL). There are also statues of the Sacred Heart in many spots in Ireland, inclduing Waterford, much in the manner of war memorial statues of the ‘Aussie Digger’ in Australian towns. On closer examination I find they are dedicated to ‘All who died in the cause of Irish freedom’

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