Tour Diary: Cork to the Gower: Barley Soup, sinking boats and a gamut of stars

Monday 23rd April 2012

I make my way to the breakfast room around 9.30am and like I do most mornings, I leave Art to get ready in our room in peace. Jack is also an early riser so like most other mornings the two of us sit and share breakfast, today overlooking Cork docks. It’s like a holiday.

We head off from the hotel around noon and after twenty minutes we are in Cobh. Cobh, formerly Queenstown (named after Queen Victoria), had changed its name after independence. It was also the last port of call for the Titanic on 11th April 1912 before she took that fateful journey to New York. The town is picturesque and dominated by a slate grey Cathedral, St. Colman’s, which stands proud on the hill. We park next to the cathedral, the wind and rain lashing at us from up here on the rise. The town itself also nestles on the hill with multi-coloured housing sticking out of the slope like crooked teeth.

The seafront is composed of a collection of hotels, cafes and souvenir shops. In the front window of one souvenir shop they have photos of children with their homemade Titanic models. There is a very short Victorian promenade; jutting out into the water it was the original jetty that people used to board the Titanic. It is wooden and rotting. We pass another sad monument in the form of some figures, wet and distressed, like corpses walking. This is the monument remembering the sinking of the Lusitania, just off the coast here, during World War I. It seems Cobh has had its share of maritime disasters. We walk further along the seafront, skim stones and walk along the concrete sea wall, heavy with seaweed. The sun comes out.

As we walk a man recognises us from the Cork gig and recommends a few places to eat. We end up in Gilbert’s Restaurant where we eat homemade breads and cream of barley soup, which the waiter informs us was the soup that was served in first class on the Titanic. A quick stop off at Auntie Annie’s Old Sweet Shop, stuck behind children building up a sweet bag for one Euro and we are back on the road. Our next stop is Ardmore. We drive up to the ruins of Ardmore church which sits on a hilltop overlooking the most gorgeous view of a bay I have ever seen. The sea is blue and the waves foamy. The church sits on the ruins of St Declan’s Abbey. The church was built in the twelfth century but now it is simply walls and pillar stumps. A frieze still exists on one wall and depicts the judgement of Solomon and the visitation of the Magi. Within the ruins itself sits an Oghan Stone, which looks ancient and knowing. The surrounding graveyard surprisingly contains graves from as late as the 1960s and 1970s. They look incongruous next to the ancient remnants of their ancestors. The name Keeler crops up throughout the centuries. It’s not hard to work out they are a local family as the pub on the way into town was named Keelers.

Within the graveyard stands a round tower (built circa 1170) which the monks used to protect precious books and relics during attacks from local chieftains. It is thirty metres tall and perfectly preserved. The tour of the grounds puts our minds at rest. We briefly visit the bay itself watching the waves meet the sand.

And so we move on around the south east tip of Ireland. Next we stop at another small beach called Balmohonal where the sand is spotted with pink granites and we watch the gulls dive bombing into the surf in search of fish. It is so peaceful. We follow the ‘Copper Coast’ and come to our final most arresting view. We park near an abandoned shaft mine complete with chimney. The grass to the right of the road gives way to cliff edge and a view of the most sublime stack of sea rocks. The light is golden and we lay on a jut of earth just on top of the cliff. Someone has left a mattress in the soft springy grass. Hold a moment for peace.

Now we are in the van for good, we pass Dungarvan, Killeagh, Tranmore. We stop at a small lakeside town called Passage East with its lobster pots stacked on the stony quays, catching a ferry over into County Wexford and Arthurstown, leaving Waterford and Annestown behind us. Throughout the journey the views across the coast, with their rock stacks and lakes are stunning. We arrive is Rosslare at 8pm in time to catch the 9pm Stena ferry to Fishguard. The sublime visions of nature gone now, replaced by brightly lit yellow signs, adverts for vodaphon and all the other baggage of civilisation. When the captain announces that someone has left a pink Blackberry on deck, Simone and Jack shout my name out loud.

The ferry crossing is choppy and we all feel a bit queasy. Staff recommend to Art (who is suffering the worst) that he should get some fresh air. Me, Simi, Aurora and Art head for the deck. It is cold and the wind takes my breath away, which is alarming at first. I look out into the dark water and think of the people on the Titanic, think of all the sailors that have died in the icy depths of the Irish Sea. I think and I am scared; it’s black beyond the immediate side lights of the ferry, nothing but the odd small light from a fishing boat. The vastness is almost overwhelming.

We arrive in Fishguard at 12.20am and Jack drives us to Swansea where we stop on Arthur’s Stone, the highest point in the marshland of the Gower Peninsula. The stars are wondrous and we stand for the briefest moment gazing upon Mars.