Thursday, 30 October 2008

Irish Times

Ah, so where were we? Well, we spent Monday driving around Lough Derg. Very beautiful, again we had blue skies and sunshine interspersed with heavy showers. We've seen rainbows every day, and of course when the sun shines it makes the ground look green and full of life. The trees, however, are very autumnal, shades of gold everywhere.

So Monday was fine, we thought we'd drive until we hit Portumna, then have a spot of lunch. All was well until, approaching Portumna, we found the bridge across the Shannon was closed ro repair work. So near, but yet so far. A minor inconvenience? Well, we took the recommended diversion, but in this part of the world bridges across the Shannon are few and far between, and the diversion took almost an hour before we finally hit Portumna. Can't really complain, since we drove through beautiful countryside, but by the time we arrived we were all quite hungry and were disappointed further to find that everywhere seemed shut up. I know it was a bank holiday, but I'd have thought I'd still be able to find some open cafés. Anyway, on we drove around the lough, planning to stop at the first place we saw. As it happened, the western side of the lough is even less developed than the eastern side (I wouldn't mind but we saw an excellent-looking pub/restaurant in Terryglass, before we knew about the diversion. If only we'd known...) and we didn't find anything until we reached the town of Scarriff, where a small supermarket was open. So we had a belated lunch, al fresco, sitting by the small harbour at Scarriff. Chilly but beautiful, and very quiet. As we continued around the lough, there were some wonderful views, especially once we crossed the Shannon again at Killaloe, when we drove onto high ground and had a tremendous view of the lough below. To cap it all, we saw a really bright rainbow, probably the brightest I've ever seen, which made the view almost magical. Unfortunately we weren't able to stop quickly enough to take a photograph, but the memory will stay forever in any case. It was that time of day, that we drove around into Nenagh and had no trouble finding an open coffee shop for a yummy cake and latté to round off the day.

Tuesday we went for another drive, and the roads were much more lively after the bank holiday. Drove down to Tipperary, where we stopped only briefly. It was raining, plus the place didn't look particularly attractive. We drove on to Cashel for lunch (found an excellent café) and a visit to the famous Rock of Cashel. We had blue skies and fluffy white clouds by this time, so I should get some half-decent photographs. Excellent views across to the Galtys in the distance. Very windy and cold once again, though. Some places had snow forecast...

After visiting the old cathedral, we pressed on to Thurles, a charming little town, where we stopped for an hour. Thurles is the home of the Tipp county hurling team, so I couldn't resist getting a souvenir polo shirt with which to remember the visit. On then to Nenagh once again, where this time there was time enough not just for a coffee (we found an excellent deli) but to have a look around some shops too. It was dark as we did this and there was the smell of smoke in the air - lovely. I have to say that Nenagh is possibly the most charming place we have visited, and it is right on our doorstep too. A lucky choice, given we didn't really know anything about the area when we booked.

Yesterday we fell back to "Plan B", the weather really was awful so we just headed for the nearest city, Limerick. Now, I had been warned that Limerick was a bit of a dump, but if the truth be told I was pleasantly surprised. The best thing - and this seems typical of Ireland so far - is that you see plenty of independent shops, not just the normal High Street chains. So, all in all, a pleasant day. No photos though!

Today we ended up doing something similar, although the weather was a little better so we drove right down to Cork. All was fine until we actually arrived, when it took something like thirty minutes to park. Unbelievable. The city looked good, though this time we saw many High Street chains. I suspect if we'd had longer there we would have found the smaller shops in the smaller streets, but of course we were visiting for an afternoon only, plus there was a freezing wind. I think I'd probably go back there and visit again.
I have to say I've enjoyed Ireland immensely. It is like England in terms of scenery, but more charming in terms of the towns and the people. We've been quite lucky having been so close to Nenagh, the flip side being that it took us a couple of hours to get to the coast the other day, and a couple of hours to get down to Cork today. I think possibly next time we may locate ourselves in Clare, for example, and have most things a little closer (though of course visiting places like Cork would then be out of the question). But yes, it'd be good to come back.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Not again...

Ah, well, it has been so long since I last wrote anything that I can't even remember what I wrote. Suffice it to say that nothing has happened that was worth writing about! However...

Way back in June or July, when I was desparate for a holiday, I had the idea of getting a last break of the year in. Somewhere not too far from home (last year we headed up to Scotland having dumped Alice at Grandma's, the year before we visited the Yorkshire Dales), and somewhere new. We settled on.... Ireland.

So, I was up at my normal time on Friday, ready to check the crossings (the previous day they'd been cancelled due to stormy weather), pack the car, the family and the cats, and then to start our latest holiday.
Fun and games started almost immediately, the first stop being to drop the cats off at the cattery at half-past-eight. Knock, knock. No answer. "I arranged to bring them early", says Jacqueline. Knock, knock. No answer. Give them a ring. No answer. Even the woman's neighbour helped at one stage. At a quarter-to-nine, signs of life. "I don't open until 9", she says, "Early? I've nothing written in my book". Anyway, by ten-to-nine we're on our way. Me, stressed out because we need to be at the ferry for 2 o'clock, and Tomtom is warning us of a four-and-a-half hour journey ahead, so not much slack to play with.

In the end, of course, I needn't have worried. There we were, sitting on the quayside at one o'clock, blessed by good driving conditions and, for the most part, with Demon Jac behind the wheel. Anyway, onto the ferry for a lunch of fish and chips - first food since 7 o'clock in the morning so I was ravenous. Next priority was to get some sleep. Fortunately the ferry was pretty quiet, and in a coffee bar I found a deep, three-seater sofa with my name on it. Choppy? Errrr, you could say that. I could hear continuously car alarms going off on the deck below, and the ship was fair rolling around. But did it stop me sleeping? Not a bit of it. And Alice spent the crossing playing, too. Only poor old Jacqueline sat there feeling sea-sick!

On schedule, we made port in Rosslare, and set foot on Irish soil for the first time (apart from a holiday and various business trips to Dublin). The first night, we were only headed as far as Wexford, so literally twenty minutes off the ferry we were checking into the hotel. After the long drive to Pembroke, I didn't want to have to do any more that day. Still quite tired, Alice and I want for an excellent supper in the hotel restaurant while Jacqueline (who is still on her diet) visited the health club. After that, bed. Knackered. We felt quite high up in the hotel, and throughout the night we could hear the window rattling, for the wind was certainly picking up. True enough, by the time we checked out on Saturday (after a hearty Irish breakfast - my first cooked breakfast for ages!) we faced quite horrible conditions for the drive to our cottage.

According to Tomtom, the drive ahead of us was not long, so we stopped for a couple of hours at Waterford. More by luck than good judgement (the road signs/layout was terrible, something we found once again in Limerick yesterday), we found Waterford Crystal and as obedient tourists went on the factory visit. I have to say it was excellent. They had an exhibition of some of the one-off trophies that they have made, including Wimbledon championships and many golf tournaments. We even bought some of our very own (well, Grandma's christmas present actually, hope she doesn't read this!!). In all, well worth the visit.

Onward and upward, though, and as the weather became worse and worse, we passed through (the former cyclist) Sean Kelly's home town of Carrick on Suir, on our way up to deepest Tipperary. A village called Dromineer on the edge of Lough Derg. Really, the heart of Ireland. Despite the rain, Jacqueline and went out for a walk, and whadd'ya know? We found a pub. And whadd'ya know? They were serving Guiness. So, of course, I felt obliged.... (Jacqueline was still very good, sticking to mineral water.) Of course, when we arrived back at the cottage, Alice was very jealous, but there again, it was she who had declined to come with us in the first place. So, anyway, that was Saturday. Fortunately the cottage was warm, for the storm outside was a bit furious.

Sunday, however, we woke up and the sky was a lot brighter. No rain either, but quite a biting wind. Having had an extra hour's sleep, we then went for a walk around the harbour, en famille. Saw the castle ruins and had a good old walk. Very wet underfoot, though. We were sufficiently optimistic about the weather that we decided we might just get a good day out of this, so we headed west. On the car radio, the forecast was basically "sunshine and showers", and that's exactly how it turned out. Having said that, when we arrived at our destination - the Cliffs of Moher - in the middle of a hailstorm and gale-force winds, we almost didn't stop. But the rain stopped, the sun came out, and all in all we had an excellent couple of hours there (followed by another good hour or so in a Rock Shop we'd seen close by). I haven't checked the photographs yet but there are bound to be some quite spectacular shots. But I simply couldn't get over the wind. Okay, that was the Atlantic out there, but it really felt like if you didn't keep your balance you were going to be blown over. I saw one unfortunate couple who tried to put up an umbrella...

Ultimately, well worth the four hour roundtrip, although I'm not sure we'll venture quite so far today. We were back at the cottage for 6:30pm, of course the clocks having gone back it was dark, and Alice and I had hot dogs for supper. Real "holiday" food. To cap it all, today is a Bank Holiday in Ireland, so the rest of the country is on holiday too. It has just gone 10 o'clock and I've hardly heard a peep from outside. But the sun is once again streaming in through the window, it is about time I got a shower and discussed with the womenfolk what to do today. I could quite fancy a drive around Lough Derg, I'll see what they think.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Autumn on the Way?

Well, the weather has certainly turned over the last 24 hours. I came out of the house this morning to driving rain, and on the journey to the station saw lots of leaves being blown about. Perhaps we're finally at the start of the cold season. In contrast to this, the weather beforehand had been wonderful. We enjoyed an excellent day out in Poole Harbour and on Brownsea Island two weekends ago, all of us dressed very much for summer. Brownsea was lovely - a really good place to go for the day to just tramp around. We saw a couple of elusive red squirrels - I was struck by how much smaller they are than the greys - which were sufficiently quick on their toes that the only in-focus photograph I got was of one running away pretty sharpish! There was even an overly-friendly pheasant who insisted on following us, presumably in the hope of a share of the picnic! Very different from the pheasants closer to home, whose main goal in life is to avoid humans, and more specifically lead pellets! But the overriding memory of Brownsea will just be the sheer tranquility next to the sea, shimmering in the sunlight.

"No photographs!"

Then last weekend, equally fine weather but this time spent among the crowds at Portsmouth. The goal was to visit the Spinnaker Tower, which I have to say was expensive, disappointing and probably best seen from a distance. From the expense perspective, it cost something over £20 for the three of us. Our photos were taken at the start of the visit, to be processed in time to offer us a souvenir at the end of the visit (for the princely sum of £8 - we declined!) only to find, when we got to the viewing platforms, everywhere glassed in and in the full glare of the sun. Even the topmost platform, the so-called Crow's Nest, was open air only by virtue of a small skylight exposed to the elements - but still enclosed in walls of glass. So, between fingermarks and reflections, all in all lugging my camera around was a complete waste of time. Well, almost - I did get a couple of good images of the tower, once we'd descended.

We hadn't realised it, but the site of the Spinnaker was slap-bang in the middle of Gunwharf Quays shopping centre. Whilst, as shopping centres go, the harbourside location is very pleasant on a fine day, this fact meant one overriding thing - queues. In fact, it took a full 90 minutes to get to the place, a journey I would ordinarily expect to complete in 45, and the queues coming out were even worse. But still, as I say, overall quite a pleasant experience, complete with boutiques such as Molton Brown, L'Occitane and Kipling to keep Jacqueline happy (though as it happened it was me who bought things). We must go back there, but perhaps when it is quieter.

What else? Well, I finally took the plunge and upgraded my laptop. Dell Outlet really is good for that kind of thing. You're a bit constrained by choice, because these machines are returns and cancellations, but the prices are excellent and they come complete with standard warranties etc. As it happened I got one of the most powerful machines, but which was a bit short on memory and on disk space. All for under £500. An extra £85 for another memory chip and a massive 320GB hard disk (not from Dell, I hasten to add, they're very uncompetitive for this stuff), and I have a top-of-the-range computer. I have decided that this machine is to be admin-only (documents, accounts, email etc.) since I know from experience how cluttered things can become once you start putting "tekky" stuff on there - the tools I use for my day-to-day consulting work. And, this is my first proper experience of Vista. It looked quite different to previous Windows products from a distance, but close-up-and-personal it becomes familiar very quickly. But then (imo) Windows' weakness has never been look and feel (on the contrary, that's its greatest strength), but things like security, stability and general "enterprise" features. So, we'll see how that goes.

Not a great deal else going on. The turmoil in the markets still (thankfully) appears to be quite some distance away, and if anything the trouble Bush is having getting his aid package through congress is giving everything a farcical gloss. Under the slick veneer, there really does appear to be little substance, and this is borne out by this rescue package, which is vague indeed. Who can really blame congress for requiring "due diligence" when it comes to dishing out that much money? The sad thing is that neither of the presidential hopefuls seems particularly tuned in either. Still, I hear today that as EU president, Sarkozy is putting together a summit of the main European players, to work out how best to weather the oncoming storm.

Troubled times...