Tag Archives: Rail and Sail

To Sea in a Sieve: By boat to Ireland

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Having lived in Dublin for four years, as well as having often visited family in Ireland as a child, I have had ample opportunity to experience the Holyhead to Dublin ferry . . . and ample opportunity to decide that it was definitely not for me.

Don’t get me wrong – normally I love travel by boat. And I’m usually pretty hardy when it comes to any kind of motion sickness, too (except when faced with a special set of circumstances involving an empty tummy, a hot car and winding Italian mountain roads, but that’s a different story). It’s just that something about crossing the stormy Irish Sea cooped up indoors in a bustling ferry café seemed guaranteed to bring out the nauseous in me.

But since moving back to London, I’ve noticed a steady increase in airfares to the Fair City (particularly since I would rather swim the 460-odd kilometres than give Mike O’Leary so much as a penny of my money). And of course there are environmental implications to all those fifty-minute hops across the water. Finally, when icy conditions grounded most flights in and out of London airports last Christmas and it suddenly looked as though all my Irish friends were going to be stuck joining my family’s festive cracker-pulling and charades around the dinner table, sailing appeared again as a viable option.

So when I needed to book a last-minute trip over recently, and flight prices were cruising at an altitude of around £200 minimum, I decided to give the boat another chance.

And it must be said, there are many immediate and obvious benefits to not travelling by plane. Arriving at Euston a mere hour before my train was scheduled to depart, I found that I was actually excessively early and had more than enough time to buy a cup of tea and a paper. I was already in good spirits, having been able to avoid the nerve-testing torture of decanting all my toiletries into tiny overpriced Boots bottles for fear of the extortionate rates for checking in a bag.

On the train, I had booked a seat with a table and a power socket, and could have worked away on my laptop (or caught up on episodes of Camelot) the whole way to Holyhead, had I wanted. As it was, I found myself more than adequately enterained by people-and-view-watching.

Holyhead station

Holyhead train station

And that’s another thing about not travelling from A to B in a sealed, air-conditioned tin can – you have a much greater sense of your journey, and of the towns, cities, villages and countryside you are passing through. Would I have ever known that Crewe Heritage Centre, with its lovely old vintage trains (I’m not a trainspotter, honest!), is right by the station otherwise? Or that the track passes alongside the castle walls at Conwy? I certainly wouldn’t have been able to watch the air ambulance practise emergency lifts out on the water; or to idly admire the shadows of seagulls on its foamy surface.

There’s also something rather romantic about the land-and-sea journey, which seems to connect in a much more tangible way with the generations of people travelling to, but more often from, Ireland. To mark my profound comprehension of a long and tragic history of forced emigration through poverty, occupation, famine, or simple lack of employment – the latter linking to my own maternal grandparents who emigrated to Yorkshire in the 1940s – I began to hum the theme tune to the Titanic, and couldn’t dislodge it from my brain for the rest of the weekend.

My fellow rail-and-sailors were an interesting crowd. The train was packed and a lot of people seemed to be planning rather longer trips than me – the aisles soon filled with oversized suitcases. Aussies and Americans abounded, to my surprise. There were also a lot of mongrel accents. I found myself particularly riveted by the soap opera that was my neighbours on the table across the aisle. She was a glamorous fifty-something, with long, straight, blonde hair and a leather jacket. Accompanying her were four children between the ages of about six and twelve. She had an accent that sounded 100% cockney . . . until we were about forty minutes out of Euston, at which point three of the children started vomiting into their paper bags/laps (depending on their reflexes) and she turned pure Dub.

“Sorry!” she exclaimed to the poor soul who was sitting next to her. “Dey don’ normally get loike dis til we gerr on de boa’!”

Still, with that piece of information in mind, at least I had the option of choosing a different part of the huge ferry to base myself in for that leg of the journey.

In fact, I was so taken with the spontaneous nature of the journey once you decide not to go by plane that my boyfriend and I booked another boat trip back for the end of the month – on this occasion travelling by car rather than train.

Since we were heading for a party in Waterford, this time we drove to Pembroke and got the boat from there to Rosslare. Tiny Pembroke is a huge improvement on Holyhead (but, then, it wouldn’t be hard), though you have to drive down some seriously remote-feeling country lanes to get to the port. Ours was an overnight boat so we decided that, after a week of work, and with a weekend of hardcore socialising ahead, we could more than justify a cabin. You don’t get much for your money in terms of size or luxury, but when compared with the prospect of squeezing into an upright chair in a brightly-lit bar, surrounded by squawking children – which could just as easily refer to an airport as the communal areas on a ferry – it was worth every penny.

And arriving into Rosslare before 7 a.m. was a rather lovely experience. The tiny part of me that doesn’t consider itself a Londoner is definitely a Dubliner, and too much countryside brings on claustrophobia attacks after a day or two. But even I had to admit that in the soft early more morning light, the quiet roads, hazy hills and lush fields of County Wexford were a sight more scenic than Dublin’s North Wall.

I don’t imagine I’ve seen the last of the Aer Lingus and BMI departure gates at Heathrow. It cannot be denied that there are times when flying is really the only practical choice. But it is nice to feel that there are options. And I’m already gleefully considering the possibilities of Christmas gifts that don’t have to be liquid-free and squeezable into a carry-on bag!

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