Day One: Enniskillen to Stafford (via Belfast and Liverpool)

In a way, the trip started yesterday. For reasons known to themselves, Ulsterbus have got rid of the early bus from Enniskillen to Belfast, so the only way of getting to the ferry port on time, other than spending another night away or managing to make conversation for two hours with a taxi driver, was by hiring a car. So MJ and I set out on the bus yesterday to collect a car from Belfast. We usually hire a car once every few months, and do as many as possible of the motoring-type errands that have built up since the last time. No one enjoys it particularly (except the dog, who wagged his tail in ecstasy when we got home with it yesterday afternoon) and there’s always a great collective sigh of relief when it’s safely back with the car hire firm.

We were the babies on the bus, as all the other passengers were white-haired couples taking advantage of their free bus passes. It was oddly quiet, especially as I often find myself on the bus at around four in the afternoon, with the hoydenish teenage girls, and rather reassuring. The reassurance was even odder, as I racked my brain to think of a bus-related crisis that would be defused by an ability to solve the Telegraph crossword or to bake a plateful of really well-risen scones. All the same, there it was.

In Belfast, while MJ got another bus up to the airport to collect the car, I whizzed (later modulated into a trudge) up and down Botanic Avenue, in the university district, visiting the charity shops (and post office, to send back our Eurostar tickets, q.v.). We met up outside the Hilton, or opposite the market, whichever sounds more congenial, and drove back to Enniskillen via Dungannon for a bit more thrift-shop browsing. Back at home we delivered some boxes of books to the business unit, collected a large box of other odds-and-ends, and called in at the supermarket for the great British (and Irish) institution of the “big shop”. After four years of not having a car, and bringing almost all our groceries home by bike, we’ve rather lost the knack of buying too much, but managed to half fill a trolley with lemonade, cereal, dog-food and vegetarian sausages.

I walked back from town, having failed to get Boots’ photo processing machines to recognize my jpgs as valid files, and was perplexed to find my legs aching quite badly as I walked up the last hill. It was bizarre – all I’d done, apart from a couple of miles wallking in Belfast and a few yards in Dungannon, was walk into town and back, a journey which I do virtually every day, usually in combination with ten miles’ cycling. The only difference was the two hours on the bus to Belfast, which I also regularly combine with walking, and the two more in the car going back. I’m beginning to understand why drivers are so anxious to park as close as humanly possible to their destinations. There seems to be something about sitting in a car – maybe the design of the seats? – that makes it really difficult to walk afterwards. Has anyone else noticed this?

At 6.45am this morning we were off again, calling at the Halifax cashpoint machine (the only one in Enniskillen that gives out Bank of England notes) and listening to more more financial squeaking on the car radio. Of all the fantastic explanations of the “crisis”, the only one we missed was the story of the innocent young bankers who, on their way to market, meet a plausible man who bought their cows in exchange for handfuls of magic beans. Of course, the tale has a happy ending; the government buys all the beans, which have turned out not to be magic after all, puts them all in a giant tin marked “Not For Human Consumption” and gives the bankers their cows back. After all, it wouldn’t do to shake confidence in the regulated fairy-tale cattle market. Not until the next time, anyway.

The journey to Belfast was quick and easy, suggesting that the massive scars across the countryside, showing the path of the new designated motorway, are less than absolutely necessary. In Ireland, however, north and south, the word “by-pass” is still synonymous with “panacea” and the phrase “road improvements” uttered without a hollow laugh. We reached the docks and the ferry terminal with an hour to spare before the check-in closed, and MJ, having lugged my enormous suitcase out of the boot (couldn’t take that on Ryanair without precipitating a personal banking crisis), set off around the harbour to take the car back.

It wasn’t, by any means, his only enormous contribution to the journey. Earlier this week he made a couple of heroic cycle trips across the border to collect my euro spending money, and while I’m away he’ll be single-handedly looking after the boys, dog, house and my book orders. No man is an island, and neither is a woman, especially when in motion. None of us can get anywhere without a bit of help, and in my case (pun not intended) an awful lot. So thank you again, M.

“Check-in” and “security” for the ferry isn’t quite what air travellers are accustomed to. In place of the long bad-tempered queue, the frenzied tapping at the keyboard, the suspicious questions, water confiscation and obsessive bagging of toothpaste, we get a friendly hello, a swipe of the passport, an offer of help with luggage and a nice lady who asks whether you have any alcohol. (I didn’t, so never found out whether it was an official question or whether she was just thirsty.) A passing lorry driver lifted my gargantuan suitcase on to the luggage trolley, with only a slight gasp and blanching of the features, and I joined the other passengers in what I suppose is probably called the departure lounge. It’s fine; modern, clean and bright, with a water cooler, toilets, television and machines for drinks and snacks. Not the total consumption experience of the airport; no opportunity to buy ties, knickers, wide-screen televisions or twenty-year old malt, just the sort of room you’d choose to wait in for half an hour before you get on a boat.

The minibus that took the foot passengers to the ferry has seen better days, and many of them, but we almost all fitted on, and it took us efficiently and unpretentiously on to the ship. In front of me was a middle-aged couple travelling with an elderly lady, and I had the pleasure of hearing them, when the bus came to a stop, urge her, “Come on Eileen.” No one else seemed to notice; maybe they didn’t go to so many discos in the early 1980s.

On the ferry I went for a wander around on the outside decks with my camera. No one else was there, and the crew hadn’t yet put up the chains designating staff-only areas, so I ended up in a few places I wasn’t supposed to be. I was enjoying feeling a bit like a journalist, but not an undercover one, so I conscientiously went back to the proper passenger places. I didn’t see anything gruesome, anyway, just a glimpse of an older world where things still get done without the benefit of wall-to-wall PR and focus groups.

The vegetarian option at lunch (three course, included in the ticket price) was the same as last time, rather glutinous spring rolls, but the chips were outstanding and, as always, the service courteous and efficient. I managed to find a seat overlooking the prow (it is prow, isn’t it?) – definitely more civilized than the safety instructions on the back of an airline seat.

The crossing was pretty near perfect; calm and smooth,and after lunch the sun even came out. I’ll leave the pictures to tell the story.

We were half an hour late getting in, but the foot passengers’ minibus was as swift as before (albeit with a cheery Scouse accent) and I found a couple of people going to Manchester and bludgeoned them into sharing a taxi to Lime Street Station (Mind you, they hadn’t seen the suitcase when they agreed.) At Lime Street there was an almost empty train about to leave for Birmingham and by dint of looking pathetic, I got another kind-hearted sap to help with the monstrous article. So,as at the time of writing (five to eight, a few miles north of Runcorn) things couldn’t possibly have gone much better. But don’t worry;there are nine more days, plenty of time for mystery,adventure,gloom and the good-natured exercise of schadenfreude.