Monday, 12 February 2018

A Grand Plan

Me and my mouth.

For some while I had been bragging to a work colleague that he should give me a straight grand to gamble with over the course of the Jumps season. In return, come April, I’d hand him back a guaranteed £1,100. A six-month 10% profit margin that he would never secure in the High Street banks or would struggle to match on the stock markets.

The incentive for me in the deal would be that any profit I made over £1,100 was mine to squirrel away. The grand would act as an investment, a pump-priming scenario. My staking is typically a lilly-livered affair because I never allow any bank of profits to build up. They are usually creamed off into the beer and kebab account, instead of fuelling a more structured punting strategy. I was supremely confident, based on my stats, that I’d land a few hundred quid’s profit.

I’d mentioned this offer to any number of people, but only Pete from the office took me seriously. Even then, the transaction took ages to set up. He never seemed to have a thousand quid lying around at the right time. Tsk.

Then a conversation in the staff room last October went something like this:
“Dave, is the betting offer still on?”
“What? The grab-a-grand? Yeah, though I’m maxed out with work at the moment. I’m not doing much punting. Could start it at Christmas?”
“Ah. Well I might not have the money at Christmas!”
“Oh. Ok then, let’s do it then!”
 I got home that night to find £1,000 nestling in my account.

It was time to put the money where my big mouth is. And through Christmas, cresting the New year, the plan was unfurling like a glorious route map to Cheltenham. I was up on the deal by a decent three-figure margin.

Then I embarked on the sort of crippling run that frays nerves, strips resolve and shreds reason.

38 bets struck since then, powered by £420 of stakes without returning a single winner. There were a few skinny place returns skulking away in the midriff of poorly constructed each-way Lucky 15s. These amounted to no more than £40. But not one bona-fide, first-past-the-post winner amongst them. It’s barely credible. Looking for the value inevitably means there will be gaps between winners, but my New Year optimism has foundered on a slew of dispiriting results. Soooo many seconds. I’ve hit the bar more times than Oliver Reed and George Best on a weekend bender.
The sequence was broken by Casse Tete on Saturday at Warwick, when he overhauled a tiring Kylemore Lough gunned for home too early by his jockey. Only 6/1, but I’ll take it. Re-set. Go again.

As an antidote to the mayhem in this struggling strategy with Pete, I’ve found myself casting an eye over the non-runner-no-bet markets for the Festival.

About time too.

I was impressed by Vision Des Flos at Exeter on Sunday in a listed novice hurdle. Much improved for the application of a tongue tie, I suspect, rather than the wind-tinkering -  declarations for which have proved to be no friend of the punter. As likely an explainer is the return to form of Tizzard’s stable after some deep mid-winter blues. Maybe the €270,000 investment in this beast is not yet wasted. He won by 30-odd lengths and was visually attractive in the way he pulled away from at least three fair-ish rivals. I’ve taken 1pt e-w at 25/1 for the Ballymore novice hurdle and a saver of 33/1 for the Supreme.

The record of Warwick’s Kingmaker Chase in setting up Cheltenham coronations is strong. Flagship Uberalles, Voy Por Ustedes, Cenkos, Finians Rainbow and Long Run all have this race in their ceremonial progression. The track demands a decent round of jumping. Five stiff fences in a line down the back straight provide a real test of rhythm and fluency. A test that Saint Calvados passed with A*s. His victory on Saturday was the sort of purring, classy demolition job that had me drooling. Yes, he’ll be up against many people’s banker of the meeting in Footpad. I don’t care. I want to be cheering on this brilliant jumper for the little guys. Who knows how he will handle the undulations of Cheltenham, or likely better going. If he comes close to finding the rhythm of Saturday, he will be a sight to savour.  8/1 win only.

I’ve burnt my fingers somewhat in the Champion Hurdle. I found the 5/1 on offer with Stan James prior to the Irish Champion Hurdle too good to resist. Of course, the bet still stands should Faugheen turn up at Prestbury Park. But the likelihood that he will and then go on to win seems remote. A great shame. Faugheen versus Buveur D’Air would be something special, though I’m sure Faugheen in his pomp would have seen him off. We can only speculate. And maybe reserve a little space for wishful thinking.

A bit of a punt in the RSA Chase. At 16/1 e-w, I’m putting a lot of faith in the view that Mia’s Storm hated the ground in the Kauto Star Novices Chase at Kempton over Christmas. Her two previous outings over fences were very good, including a smart win over Elegant Escape. The race has a more open feel about it than the market suggests, though this is far from a confident bet. This is a race I’ll return to.

I loved the performance of Time To Move On in his debut bumper at Exeter in December. Always travelling supremely well, Barry Geraghty brought her wide to find better ground, covering much more ground than his rivals. He still won by an eased down 10 lengths. I backed him for the Bumper at 16/1 only a few days before his return to Exeter on Sunday. There he carried his 7lb penalty easily, idled in front but still looked class. Happy enough. Only just wish I’d got on earlier.

Sticking with the irrepressible Fergal O’Brien, Poetic Rhythm was my first ante-post strike at 25/1 not long after the Challow Hurdle at Newbury. He caught my eye after what now looks like a half decent Persian War renewal back in October. He is not as classy as some but has guts and determination. He goes straight to the Albert Bartlett (I hope).  

Finally, a long shot for the Gold Cup with an old buddy who settled his debt with me in the King George at Christmas. Double Shuffle stayed on well to hurry up Mite Bite at 50/1 and I snaffled a decent bit of place money. I’m a big fan of Tom George’s charge whom I believe to be still on the upgrade, but who needs the right conditions. A truly run race on good/good-soft ground at 3 miles-plus is his game. Despite what most pundits will tell you, I don’t believe he was desperately flattered by his proximity to Mite Bite. They are just pissed off that so many good horses on paper misfired on the day. Double Shuffle is also entered in the Ryanair but I can’t for the life of me think that is the right race.

That’s it for now. Meanwhile, back to the Grand grind. I remain confident.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Three Gruff Goats

I'm delighted to be launching a new book this week. 'Three Gruff Goats Meet Some Unexpected Visitors' is my first children's book. (Well, how many books can one really write about losing money on the horses?)

The story takes a modern twist on the Three Billy Goats Gruff to provide mashed up fairytale for 7-12 year-olds and most adults too. The 30-page book is delightfully illustrated by the very talented artist and designer, Fay Ford.

It's available as a paperback here

...and as a kindle download here

My other books can be found in the Kindle shop here

Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Seasonal wrap

Christmas and New Year comes and goes, each of us observing long-held customs, traditions and conventions.

“I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”

However, there are always firsts. For a generation and more, I had successfully swerved any public participation in karaoke and its various game-console offspring. Until this year’s office party - my first in the new job. I was undone by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, a colleague with a shared penchant for classic grunge, and a handful of bottled Kentish Town IPAs. I fear the air-guitar moves with full windmilling, gyrations and screwed up eyes may bring a premature end to yet another promising career-move.

The karaoke quickly became a full-throated, impassioned group sing-a-long encompassing everything from ‘American Pie’ to ‘Mr Blue Sky’ via ‘Wannabe’ and the evergreen ‘Bo Rap’. I distinctly remember one of the tutors gorgeously crooning ‘Summer Wind’ with the girls providing a back line of smooth, improvised Fifties swing moves, whilst the boys hung out stage left raggedly choreographing nothing more ambitious than clicking fingers. 

My singing voice is tuneless growl at the best of times. Coupled with an inflamed larynx (bless) from a heavy cold (double bless), my unearthly howl over Nirvana’s finest moments was something even the hounds of Hades would have struggled to emulate. Later, I briefly diverted to the kitchen for a satisfying cough and retch, before rejoining the chorus line. “That’s better. Just wanted to get my phlegm up”, I said to my female co-worker, with as much honest northern charm I could muster.   She’d never heard a chat-up line like it.

The lovely northern charm quota was further boosted at home when Dad and Bruv joined us for Christmas. The anticipation of the season is always the best part and having them down a day earlier than usual afforded a chance to go over to Waddesdon Manor for their Christmas Light installation. Squeezing the last drops out of the National Trust annual membership was honestly only a very small part of the motivation.

Can’t knock the gaff, though. Waddeson was completed by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1885 as a mere Summer retreat in which to entertain extravagantly and show off opulent collections of art, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and the like. The architectural inspiration is pure Loire Valley chateaux. The plonk alone, bearing complicatedly calligraphed labels and stacked deeply in the expansive cellars, is priceless before you even consider the ostentatious buildings, manicured grounds and gilt contents of this ridiculous Gothic pile.

Getting to the house required the organisational effort of a D-Day beach landing. From the drop off point to car park to the ticket booth to the shuttle bus to the mansion itself.  We persuaded Dad that a wheelchair would be a good idea, so he could see more of the grounds. This was an inspired idea, until we took an unexpectedly ambitious route to the stable block. Lady Margaret’s Walk, though charmingly decorated with lanterns made by the enthusiastic hands of local primary school children, involved more of an off-road, all-terrain experience on the muddy track than we were anticipating. At one point the chair was sliding sideways towards an escarpment whilst I wrestled with the handles, gently tutting at the poor traction offered by the wheels. In the half-light Bruv came to the rescue with a sharp shove to the right.

After the light show projected onto the front of the house, we quietly returned the wheelchair to its berth by the bus stop, leaving the splayed-wheel, twisted-frame, mud-caked carriage for its next careful owner.

Christmas Eve afternoon in The George with CB-D and Jules has become a very enjoyable new Festive addition to the day’ traditional conventions (which also include Secret Santa, hot ham, cold pickles and single malt). On the other hand, when the Big Day arrived, there was no customary welcome into our house by Daughter No 2, who as long as can be remembered had always bellowed “It’s Christmas!” from the top of the stairs at 7.30am. Even as a 16-year-old last year, she had felt compelled to drag us from our beds as early as possible. But not this season. Not until 9.30am did the ‘kids’ get up. With the arrival of new traditions, so pass the old ones.

“That will come in handy” said Dad, admiring the present Mrs A had bought him and Bruv for Christmas, “…picture frame!” The frame actually held a fascinating monochrome photo of our family home since 1968, and indeed where my Bruv was born. Taken in 1935, the row of houses that contained our abode was still pristine and uncluttered, presented prior to the addition of disfiguring dormers, bays and porches. The trees opposite looked like fruit bushes compared to the size they are now; and a figure could be made out parking his bike in front of the long-closed corner shop. Anyway, good to know the frame will be useful...

And then another set of spectacular presents from Mr Fernie, who has an enviable track record in this department, it has to be said. T-shirts this year. A job lot of them requiring the construction of a 'what a difference a Dave makes' team photo. Ho. Ho. 

Board games get wheeled out, as befits yet more traditions, before the torpor of over-indulgence takes hold. That Christmas night it was simple Charades followed by more complex Rapidough. My Dad can be a bit unpredictable when it comes to these creative games. His picture of a ‘telephone’ in a round of Pictionary a few years back has become legendary, so far removed was it from any instrument of communication ever invented.  Once again, his Rapidough plasticine efforts did not disappoint. This was his glorious offering for ‘bikini’:

During Twixtmas (I can do marketing speak), Mrs A went to the Nutcracker with Jules, who observed my wife bursting in to tears on four confirmed occasions, with the suspicion of a good deal more unseen emotional moments. The ballet. That’s a right good night out, then.

Deeper into Twixtmas, we pitched up next door for a few drinks with an assortment of neighbours. I was chatting to a couple from up the road whom, being an active neighbourly sort of bloke, I’d never met before. In amongst the chit chat with them about the weather and house prices, they introduced their kids and remarked how tall they were growing. I launched into some Poirot-like interview, quizzing them about the possibility of tall genes within the family, parents’ siblings who were unnaturally tall and the like. I didn’t really notice Mrs A giving me a warning look. Neither did I pay any attention when she drew her finger repeatedly across her throat. I was relentless. “Funny how these things can skip generations”, I went on. My new friends smiled politely. Turns out that they adopted their children about 10 years ago… How was I supposed to know?

By the time New Year’s Eve hove in to view, we were creating a new tradition: year-end crazy golf. Yes, CB-D and Jules had spotted a great looking course on their way back from Stanmore one day and knew immediately the family who would want to join them. Daughter No 2 even pulled a sickie from work to come.

We were not alone. ‘Lost Jungle’ was humming. Many thrill-seekers were crawling over 36 holes of extreme adventure golf, crammed with jungle animals, island holes, Aztec tombs and lost shipwrecks all built on a man-made hill in suburban Hertfordshire. Once you’ve taken an easy par two on a hole behind a curtain waterfall, there really is not much left to achieve in the game.

New Year’s Eve was spent in The Old Mill, The Lamb and The George and then back home for London fireworks and the ginger busker’s massacre of ‘Layla’ on Hootenanny. We were not late to bed and on getting up to feed the dog next morning, Mrs A bumped into Daughter No 1 and friends returning from their NYE all-nighter in Hoxton. Except that they’d left Lucy on the train at Berko. She didn’t wake up in time and as they looked back, the doors closed with Lucy on the inside, condemned to a short detour via Leighton Buzzard. She arrived 30 minutes later and went straight upstairs to crash out beside Daughter No 1.

We strolled over to Aldbury with the dog later in the day, savouring the prospect of the walk and a quiet beer before the return to work. 

But people just can’t get enough in these parts. The place was packed. We discovered that there’s a tradition of music in the village on this bank holiday. The Valliant Trooper had Morris Men flayling their hankies and jangling bells in the beer garden; and over in The Greyhound, locals were turning up with guitars and violins for a session in the front bar.

We found the edge of a table in The Valliant Trooper for a bite to eat. The other corner was shared with a bloke called Alan and his wife. Alan was as chatty as his partner was silent. He had a lot to tell us. From shunting patterns in the Willesden Goods Yard to the recycling habits of his local pub near Hitchin. He had some photos of metal tomb markers taken in the village church yard that he was itching to show us. We felt it was probably time to leave.

That was a wrap.


Thursday, 23 November 2017

Empty nesters

With Daughter No 1 away having a ball at Uni and Daughter No 2 at college/the boyfriend’s/independently self-contained, this Autumn seemed like the perfect time to cash in on the empty nest and begin recouping some of the extortionate flight and accommodation costs we’ve coughed up over the years. Here was a chance to swing the balance back in our favour by flagrantly short-breaking in term time.  

First, we booked an October trip to Ireland with some fellow empty nesters. A weekend was carefully scheduled that would offer cheap travel and a location sufficiently distant to feel we were getting away properly. Westport in County Mayo seemed to fit the bill, sitting invitingly on the wild Atlantic coast and yet only a short drive from Knock Airport.

Then Ryanair cancelled 2,000 flights in September and October because they had run out of pilots. That’s a pretty fundamental cock up. Initially, this most unscrupulous of airlines was going to release details about which flights had been cancelled only in fortnightly batches. Under extreme pressure, the company relented and promised to publish the full list of axed journeys upfront. We had an agonising wait to see whether we had made the cut.

Ryanair’s website was eventually updated with the key info. Most of the problems seemed to be from Stansted and Gatwick. Clearly Knock airport is below the radar. We had dodged a bullet.

But there were more slugs in other chambers.

In meantime, cock-a-hoop at our brazen new freedoms, the pair of us booked a sneaky weekend trip to Tenerife to see Auntie Sue, flying out late September. Monarch Airlines were practically giving away the seats.

Around my new office colleagues, I was infuriatingly smug about the trip.

“Ask me what I’m doing this weekend. Go on, just ask.”

No-one fell for it after the first half dozen repeats.

Retribution was swift. I picked up an irritating dose of conjunctivitis before we’d even left for the airport. The prospect of bright sunlight searing my tenderised pupils made me wince ironically from behind prescription sunglasses. (I’m not anticipating sympathy here.) 

We arrived early evening and strolled out with Sue for a couple of beers and to say hello to the locals. I felt - rather than observed - the odd raised and curious eyebrow at my shaded eyes in the dark (but warm) night. I didn’t get chance to explain. ‘I’m not a dick, honest. It’s conjunctivitis!’ wouldn’t have sounded that convincing anyway.

There was an excellent evening in Las Galletas with some good food and cocktails, then soaking up a laid-back midnight gig on the beach by Fraille. And that was about as energetic as we got. Some evil bug, no doubt hastened around our Airbus A330 by an over eager air conditioning system, laid Mrs A and I low for the rest of the trip with a combination of the trots and the sweats.

Mrs A all but passed out on Sue’s terrace in the middle of a very superior buffet; and I went the whole hog the next day in a fine fish restaurant in Las Galletas. I could feel myself swooning over the cava (sadly not in that classy ‘20’s style) and the next thing I knew, the waiter and Mrs A were carting me across the floor to the Gents where they flushed my head under the Grohe combination faucet.  

Sue went off to find me a new t-shirt and I consigned my vintage, distressed and now vom-stained UFO tour number to the bin. The replacement Sue chose was a bold shade of burgundy and just so happened to perfectly match my shorts, even down to the stitching on the seams. I looked like I was in uniform. Ready for duty as the sickliest waiter in town.

It’s Sue I feel sorry for. She waits all year for her Sis to come and visit, then we throw up in the posh new restaurant and spend all weekend in bed. 

Then things took a turn for the worse (I’ve always wanted to say that). At about 3am, my phone jingled its little text jig.

“Oh Christ, no!”

“What? What!”

Mrs A was alarmed. The first reaction of empty nest short-breakers when there’s bad news is that something has happened to the fledglings.

“No, it’s not that. Monarch have gone bust. They’ve cancelled all the fucking flights!”

“Oh, thank God for that!”


And so began the biggest peacetime repatriation since the War, according to Chris Grayling, our Churchillian Transport Secretary of State, never one to shirk a sound bite in a crisis.

It seemed there was a recovery plan in place. Our flight home was to be at the same time, but provided by a different operator. There was some drivel from the CAA about how quickly the plan had been put in place with only four hours notice. PR bullshit. The website was up and running with full functionality almost immediately and planes were already on standby from other operators. Turned out there had been a shadow system in place since Monarch narrowly avoided liquidation in the Spring. Impressive foresight.

The plan almost went without a hitch. We were allocated a flight number and a departure time. We arrived at the check-in desk and presented our passports as instructed. That’s where the hitch kicked in. Our names were not on the all-important list being bandied about the Iberian Airways official. We would not, after all, be departing at our original time. Through a series of curt exchanges riddled with rising anxiety, we established that the replacement plane was smaller, by 25 people, than the virus-spreading Airbus that brought us here. We were two of the 25. We also gleaned that that there was a small delegation from the British Embassy floating about by the car hire booths who would be able to help us. With that we were summarily waved away.

The Embassy officials were indeed able to help us, once we were sure we were talking to representatives of Her Majesty’s Government and not hiring a Seat Alhambra for a fortnight. Our highlighted names appeared on a dog-eared computer print-out that confirmed ourselves and 23 other refugees would be boarding a 747-300 made up of (at least) two further flights bound for Gatwick in 11 hours time. Handy, as our car was at Luton and due to be collected at 5pm on Tuesday evening, not 5am on Wednesday morning from 75 miles distant.  

Loading up the jumbo with tired and irritable passengers took an age. We joined the sprawling queue, snaking between pillars and through duty free concessions, right at the back amongst the phlegmatic types. The departure hall was not really equipped to deal with that number of people on one flight. Indeed there was gallows humour amongst those around us that neither was the take-off strip. We all knew about nearby El Medano and its surfing qualities which were given an extra rip by the eddies and wind flows caused by the vertiginous hill at the end of the bay. The other side of that same hill looked over an airport runway whose meterage rested at the shorter end of a 747s ideal lift off requirements…

We took off late but without any cliff-face incidents. The flight was remarkably uneventful. And so was the rest of our journey home. A minibus was laid on at Gatwick to whisk us to Luton along quiet early morning motorways. A steely dawn was breaking over Bedfordshire as we boarded our Airparks shuttle bus to recover the car at Slip End. The staff cheerfully told us firstly that there was no extra charge on the battered old Zafira for the delay; and then that we were the lucky ones really, because some people coming back from Greece had been diverted via Paris. I started to feel a bit better. And then my stomach growled and I had to dash off for the bog again.

Mrs A and I were off our game for a good three weeks. Whatever nasty little bug it was that we picked up turned out to be a tenacious bastard. I can’t remember being off my food for three days before, in fact barely three hours most days, never mind the best part of a month.

The Westport trip hove in to clearer view at about the same time that the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia smashed up the west coast of Ireland. We didn’t hear from the b&b to say their roof had been ripped off. So maybe things were ok. Or maybe the town was without power and mobile infrastructure so they couldn’t let us know….

The good news was that Mrs A and I were feeling better by the minute, and both thirst and appetite were returning. The Johnsons, our short break buddies, were relieved to see this recovery, given that alcohol and food were two of only four factors considered relevant to the trip. The others – somewhere to stay and somewhere to walk – were easily satisfied.

There might have been a fifth – good weather – but we knew better than to risk planning for that. And so it turned out. Our flight to Knock took place in a window of quiet weather between the departing Hurricane Ophelia and the fast arriving Storm Brian. More a skylight than an actual window. There was a lot of black on the forecast.

We landed at Knock airport, built entirely from scratch for The Pope’s visit in 1988 (check out Christy Moore’s excellent song for the full story) at 11.30am. Our first Guinnesses was being drained in Westport at 1pm. By which time the rain had started. Again.

Undeterred, we checked in, donned appropriate gear and strode out purposefully to the quay. The route along a disused railway line wasn’t quite as picturesque as we had hoped. Then again our perceptions may have been affected by the slicing rain and wind. The track gave on to the harbourside, which was an altogether more pleasant view. I noted that the ‘Pride of Clew Bay’ pleasure cruiser was moored up and leaning to starboard in its berth, the windswept sun deck looking especially unappealing. There were to be no tours round the bay today, despite what the leaflet in our b&b declared. Mrs A looked mighty relieved.

We strode on past galleries, bars and gift shops. The splendid grounds of Westport House suggested a more interesting route back to town. In fact the stately home and gardens had just closed for the day. Our quartet was gently ushered out of the estate by the manager who parked her Audi in front of us and held open some big old iron gates. We had big smiles as we shuffled out and thanked her, rain running off our noses, wet gear sticking together like new fivers. “Mad yokes” she chuckled and waved us off her patch. If she hadn’t spotted us ambling down the flooded access road, there’s a fair chance we would have been on the estate all night.

This would have been a shame as we’d have missed a sparkling evening at Matt Molloy’s. The bar had been recommended to me by a former work colleague who now lived in Ireland. It was a top bit of info. After a few beers in the front bar, we wandered through a series of smaller rooms to find the music bar at the back. The entertainment was just starting. A singer was sat behind a mike stand, clutching an acoustic guitar with a harmonica round his neck. He was dishing out his own acoustic guitar/harmonica versions of Tom Petty, Neil Young and the like. The bar was quickly filling up with various groups: a gang of lads on a Friday night out, a few tourists, a few locals and a large 50th birthday party front and centre. They were not interested in a few tame covers of Americana. As I say, the entertainment was just starting.

The birthday party were getting in to the swing of things by about 10.30pm. Our valliant singer had already been interrupted a few times by punters getting up and having a crack themselves, like it was an open mike night. One girl put up such a horrendous version of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ that when she tried to get up later and sing again, the guy wouldn’t let her on the stage.

Then the birthday girl herself got up onstage and shrieked out an interminable version of ‘Que Sera Sera’. Her stuttering and halting delivery initially disguised the fact that she had rewritten all the verses to mark every notable (and otherwise) event in her life. After half a dozen verses I’d worked it out. After another 10, warning bells were clanging. The verse that began we “and so we got to 2003…” had me screaming for mercy. Not another 14 years to go! Later there was a couple of lines dedicated to her pal Dougie, which she introduced with the words,

“Ah, I don’t think Dougie’s her tonight. No bother. Sure, well sing it anyway.”

One guy in a loud paisley shirt was trying to impress the girl he was with and performed a little shuffle-dance-shimmy in front of the stage during which he tripped and fell backwards smack on his arse, legs in the air, dead ant-style. The really impressive bit, and I hope his girl noticed, was that he spilled not a drop from the full pint of lager clutched in his left hand. It went down perfectly level and came back up the same way.

The evening lumbered on late into a haze of large Jamesons’ (I’d forgotten how big the measures are outside England) and a throng of bad dancing (I’d forgotten how little invitation Mrs A and Sue require inside or outside England).

I had to get up early-ish the next morning to buy a new coat. The old one had been about as much use as a smoking jacket on the previous day’s sodden jaunt. With the imminent arrival of Storm Brian, I felt the need for a purchase.  ‘Early-ish’ turned out to be a concept of perception in Westport. Nothing was even stirring on the high street til 10 o’clock. Eventually, Portwest Outdoor (see what they did there, little play on the town name…) reluctantly opened its doors and I bought a shiny new waterproof for 90 Euro, thinking ‘that’s not bad with the exchange rate’, then quickly reappraising, ‘oh, so about 90 quid then’. To be fair, it’s a pretty decent coat, made especially cosy because of the fleecy lining in the front pockets and the addition of a secret pocket in the hem. I do love a good pocket.

The new purchase got a serious workout later that day when we took on the worst that Storm Brian could chuck at us, right in the smacker. If we’d located the start for the Letterkeen Loop walk, north of Newport and beyond Loch Feeagh without getting lost and following sat-nav red herrings, we may have completed a good portion of it before the storm was in full vent. As it was, we ascended the boggy fells along an old cattle track that resembled a river bed rapidly filling with runoff from the hills. The rain was almost horizontal and the wind blew down our hoods. Mrs A wondered aloud if we should have let somebody know where we were going.

At the top of the loop we swung right into the trees and were sheltered from the worst of the gale by a ridge of conifers. The walk back to the trail-head down the Altaconey valley was almost pleasant.

The b&b did a good line in lemon cake, which we snaffled from the breakfast room together with fresh milk for the tea and gently steamed in our rooms for an hour or so amongst the sauna-like effect of drying clothes on the radiators.

Now I had a new problem. My boots were leaking. So it was back to Portwest Outdoor for a can of Nikwax. The boots were sprayed liberally with the stuff. It was then pointed out to me that the can was over 100ml and I would not be able to take it home on the plane. So the boots got another treatment, as did Mrs A’s walking shoes. I did my trainers, the old coat, and pretty much anything else I that might benefit, however marginally, only just stopping short of the shower curtain. It’s all about extracting the value.

Ascending Croagh Patrick is often done as a pilgrimage in bare feet. It is Ireland’s sacred mountain, named after its Patron Saint. As our party numbered one atheist, one lapsed and two agnostics we resisted the barefoot option. Good looking peak though - conical and almost Alpine-like, rising above Clew Bay to a height of 773 metres. So not a mountain at all, technically. I believe 1,000 metres is the accepted benchmark.

It felt like one. Surely one of the steepest climbs I’ve ever done, and mostly on shale and gravel, which meant plenty of scrabbling one step forward and slipping two steps back. The hillside environment was properly bleak, worthy of a 1980’s indie gatefold sleeve cover.

As befits a feat of religious significance, the dense clouds parted as we claimed the peak to reveal a panoramic, shadow-scudded sweep from Westport in the east giving way to the scattered islands of Clew Bay in the west. Even in the short time we remained at the summit, braced against the screaming wind, we could see more sandbanks and islets being revealed as the tide sucked the sea out of the bay. I wouldn’t fancy navigating a deep-hulled boat through that lot.

The mountain (let’s pretend) is deeply bedded into Irish folklore. As a place of worship, it reaches back to 3,000 BC. The chapel at the summit, and the mind boggles at the effort required to build it, dates from 1905. St. Patrick is said to have completed a forty-day Lenten ritual of fasting and penance here. The story goes that this is the mount from where he banished snakes from Ireland forever.

The way down was almost as tough as the climb up. Different muscles, different pains. We were all quite struck by the camaraderie and friendliness of the trek and there were many words of encouragement passed between us and fellow adventurers. On the tumbledown from the peak, we saw our first barefoot pilgrim. This one was a callow youth of 6-foot plus, striding out confidently and picking his barefoot placement with ease. Later, as we were drawing breath and resting limbs, a couple of lads ambled past us wearing trainers, shorts and football tops, chatting away like they were out for a Sunday stroll, each clutching a can of Carlsberg. That seemed to put our labours into perspective.

We had earned a pint of our own that night. For our last drinks, we went back to Matt Malloys. Dave and I bought souvenir t-shirts with an attractive design of the bar emblazoned on the front. Both were mediums. Dave had to give his away to one of his daughters. Just saying.

Meanwhile Sue had spotted on the bar the very drink she needed to finish off our break. It was my round and I was packed off to identify it. The owner of the goldfish bowl sized glass, sloshed with ice and alcohol was a very lovely looking young lady. I starting asking what she was drinking in my usual casual manner, and I quickly became aware of her boyfriend giving me a filthy stare as he saw this plump, balding, middle-aged bloke trying to move in on his girlfriend.

“No, no my friend wanted to know!”

I blurted and pointed vaguely back to Sue and the gang who were openly sniggering.

“Gin and grapefruit with elderflower tonic” he spat.

I thanked him and ordered a brace as nonchalantly as I could.

There were no alarms, failing airlines or other, on the way home. And despite a shaky start, I can comfortably conclude that the empty nesting break experiment is definitely worth extending.