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!”
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 here 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.