We just got here, so why the hell do we need “rest and recuperation?” Every other year, starting when we moved to Zambia, we get sent from our assigned Post to have some “R&R,” and on the even years work grants us home leave. This is the R&R year, and we popped on up to Ireland and the UK.
Our assigned R&R location is London, which is convenient since we’ve always wanted to explore this part of the world; the timing worked out well because Jessy’s parents were going to Ireland and the UK, so we were able to meet up. We met up with them in Dublin and explored Ireland together for a week, then we parted ways and continued to England and Wales on our own.
Dublin: The Original Savannah. As y’all know, we lived in Savannah, Georgia for a year, and Dublin reminded us of Savannah a lot. Tons of quaint brick buildings, right on a port, and the closer you get to the river the more people are feeling the “craic.” (Craic is a Gaelic term meaning fun and entertaining, but also kind of means a “happy drunk.”) It’s a lovely town and apparently we should give the people in Savannah more credit for holding on to so much of an Irish vibe from the Old Country.
While in Dublin we stopped at the Guinness factory and if there were ever a Disneyland for a single beer, this is it! Is it true that Guinness from Dublin tastes better? Actually, yes. It’s just so much more clean and subtle and smooth. But Ireland isn’t just beer and pubs – let’s get out into the country!
First stop: Kilfenora. It’s highly unlikely you’ve heard of Kilfenora, but if you have, you’re probably some Irish music aficionado (lots of folk music played there), or you’re from there originally. It’s a small village…probably more sheep than people…there’s a church, a convenience store, two pubs, and that’s about it. Kilfenora was more of a personal stop since this is where Jessy and her mother’s family is from originally. So we wandered around a graveyard looking for the right last names covered in moss until a random resident came by walking her dog, and said “oh yeah, I know that stone, I showed it to one of your family members last year.” This is also in the graveyard of a church built in 1189, with one of the original Irish Celtic crosses carved from stone just out there on display. We the trekked up into the hills…going solely on Jessy’s Mom’s memory from her 1997 visit…to crash-in on a lovely family living in the old home where Jessy’s family grew up. This was the house they left before migrating to the States. The family living there now actually had old photos of the house in its pre-reno state and it was cool to see how this house has evolved and what they’ve kept, like the giant fireplace hearth. It was also interesting to see how quaint this town was…for example, we asked what the mailing address was and the response was “family name, road by the lake, Kilfenora…they’ll find us.”
After Kilfenora we tooled around the Irish countryside letting the Emerald Isle lead us, which is actually doable because we could just go until we were ready to sleep and just crash in on any B&B anywhere…no reservations. Highlights included seeing a number of Irish bands playing pub tunes, the Cliffs of Moher, Skellig Island, and many whiskey distilleries.
One quick thing – Ireland is full of ponies. Miniature ponies. Seriously, the mystical pony at the top of this post was just one of hundreds of tiny little chubby midget horses we saw all over the place, all about 3-4 feet tall at most. So many ponies, you start to wonder why there are so many. Did they replace dogs as pets because there’s more grass than meat on the island? Did show jumping somehow make it into the national kindergarten curriculum? Some weird French thing and it’s all for export to other parts of the EU? No idea, but it’s way, way more ponies than there should be to meet the regular ol’ miniature pony collecting weirdo demand.
Skellig Island is interesting as much more than a filing location. Sometime between the year 600 and 800 a bunch of monks thought to themselves, “You know, Ireland is harsh place of stoic beauty. Let’s go somewhere else even harsher and set up a monastery there.” So they got in a rowboat and went 7 miles out into the Atlantic to a rocky outcropping and set up shop. That lasted about 500+ years before falling into ruins, then private ownership by lords, hosting a lighthouse, etc. to modern day. A few years back the
terrible, just confusingly junky new Star Wars trilogy started filming, including a lot of time in The Last Jedi where Luke Skywalker teaches Rey how to float rocks and stuff, hang with force ghost Yoda, and Chewie just sits around trying not to eat little cute animals. So now the place is a huge tourism location. Portmagee, the town where you pick up the boats to Skellig, embraced it to the point they might as well have changed their local police to wear Stormtrooper outfits. But the boat ride out was cool because we got to see puffins, which are like fat little penguins, seals, and dolphins.
WARNING: History Lesson Ahead. Ireland is peppered with ruins of castles and abbeys. Golf courses, cow pasture, little villages, parking lots…drive 15-20 minutes in any direction and you’ll see one of these things with a crumbling castle or giant square church tower in the background. Same in England and Wales. Why? In short, from 1100 to 1534, a variety of church systems became the defacto stable influences in each of these countries. Then, Henry VIII (he got married to the widow next door, she’d been married seven times before) decided that as king, he didn’t like competition. So in 1534 UK Parliament passed an act that made him the head of the only church option: the Church of England. Henry VIII took all their stuff and basically told them to get lost, or had them killed, and forced the churches into disuse. But hey, that’s good building stone, too. So as many churches as they began to physically fall apart, people then reused the stones to build houses, barns, fences, roads, and bridges. Castles then also stopped being super useful once canons came around, so people stopped using those around the 1600s.
The Irish invented whiskey (we will fight you about this if you say otherwise), so we HAD to stop by some whiskey distilleries. Irish whiskey differentiates from Scotch in that it doesn’t suck; Irish had good sense not to add trash fire smells to their whiskey. (These are all opinions, but our opinions are pretty good, so feel free to agree with us.) We had great stops at Tullamore DEW and then at Midleton’s distillery (where Jameson, Red Breast and others are distilled). At Midleton, we had a private pulling from a fresh (19-year-old) cask of whiskey just hanging out in their celebrity storage area. Then we educated ourselves by tasting 12 different whiskeys (between the 4 of us…of course!) before figuring out our favorites: Powers Three Swallows, Red Breast 12 Year, and Jameson Blender’s Dog. We took notes with Gunner’s phone, and autocorrect also tells us we enjoyed “Method Man Single Grain 31.” Sure.
After a hard-earned week of stiffened muscles (bracing ourselves from possible collisions while driving on small winding roads, brushing the roadside foliage all across Ireland…no collisions were had thankfully), we flew over to Manchester to start our southern UK tour. Manchester was a chill city, if a little gritty, but we left after one night since it was the night that Cardiff slaughtered Manchester City in a football match and the mood of the town was a bit somber. The next morning we drove off to see the birthplaces of Lewis Carroll (Jessy’s longtime favorite) and Shakesphere (take that, high school English Lit), sleep in a castle in the countryside, dip into Cardiff to check out Wales, traipse around ancient ruins in Gastonbury, Stonehenge, Avebury, and Bath, until we stopped in London for our last couple days.
Yes, we really, we stayed in a castle, which was very cool. This one was a legit castle, originally built in stages as far back as 1511. Then Henry VIII had the duke that lived there beheaded and confiscated the castle (seriously, what’s up with this guy having people beheaded and taking their stuff?). Him and Anne Boylin stayed there once, apparently while on a “Future Ruins of the UK” tour. After changing hands apparently 900 times, by the 20th century the castle became a vacation destination for celebrities and has a seriously great restaurant. Yes, we had to save our pennies up for this one, but it was worth it. And hey, this castle was definitely not spooky and we didn’t see any ghosts…so probably not haunted either.
Wales is its own country. Yes, it’s part of the United Kingdom, but just like Scotland and England, it’s a part of Britain that had autonomy for thousands of years before the English steamrolled everyone. Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is a quaint little port city, with a castle from 1081 at its center…a castle with dragons. Wales is one of two places on earth with a dragon on their flag, and the only one with a fiberglass one in the yard of their main castle. Your Daenerys Game of Thrones whatever doesn’t have anything on real, actual castles with dragons. Fun Fact: Wales is also most likely the place where the druids that built Stonehenge came from (according to a video in the visitor’s center).
From Cardiff we went to Glastonbury, which is the site of an abbey which was the first establish Christian church in the UK. At one point just before Henry VIII went and ruined everything, the site included a huge cathedral, monastery, and gardens. Today it’s all fancy arches and grass lawns, and they’re known for being the “burial site” of King Arthur. One minor hitch – King Arthur wasn’t real. Authors created the character as a combination and exaggeration of a few regional knights, which was then fictionalized into English Uncle Sam that evolved into a Superman of Chivalry during the Victorian period. Arthur existed as a mythological moral standard that people looked at for inspiration, which at some point morphed into the assumption he was real. Then here come the people selling real, genuine, Arthurian fragments of the Round Table that are definitely not just a chunk of fencepost covered in cow poop.
England, Ireland, and Wales are ancient places. What’s crazy about that is multiple layers of ruins of old stone stuff, just sitting around like it’s nothing. Thousands of years before those hundreds of ruined churches got put up, Britons and Celts were building hundreds of stone circles. Obviously, we went to Stonehenge. It’s iconic and amazing and a mystery – but you can’t go touch the stones, you just have to look at them from 20 feet away. Not to spoil the magic of the perfect picture below, it’s also a spot surrounded by 900 tourists and a busy highway just down the hill. You can ogle the construction, it’s the only stone circle with lintels on top, but the henge itself just feels distant.
Meanwhile, 20 minutes down the road is Avebury, which has its own giant stone circle. So whoever put up Stonehenge, this town was also part of the same system or religion or whatever, and using the same construction techniques, short of the lintel pieces. This is a circle of stones is 1,000 feet across, so large there’s a town built inside of it. There’s a huge hill and moat, and some of the stones weigh as much as 40 tons and being 12 feet tall. You can go right up to these stones and se how smooth some of them are, or how pock-marked by time. We stayed at a lodge within the circle, but forgot to bring our magical crystal set, herbal teas, and heavy-duty chakra-cleansing kit. So
unfortunately our hair didn’t sprout dreadlocks, our feet stayed in shoes, and our skin didn’t naturally begin producing patchouli oil.
Another fun spot was the ancient Roman Baths in….Bath. Which is confusing when you name your town after its historic tourist feature that is also the word for washing yourself in water. Bath as a town….meh. Kind of boring and super dense like it’s the middle of a mainland European town (from what we can tell, for no good reason). The baths were built by the Romans because this is Britain’s only natural hot spring. Pretty cool, and depending on who did the writing, the waters cure everything imaginable. The English did a great job preserving the site, and the most interesting part to us was that ancient people would scratch curses on little lead sheets, ball them up, and throw them in the water. Things like “whoever stole my scarf should go blind and crazy.” Well OK then. Though, at the end of the walk-through, there’s a spigot where you can take a paper cup and drink some of the spring water, direct from underground. But….it’s sulfurous water. And warm. So you take a sip of this water and wonder if you can get the same health benefits at home by drinking water that you boiled an egg in for a few minutes.
Once we got into London we were definitely back in the 21st century…hopping on and off the Tube, shopping, and even had a chance to meet a friend from Zambia now living in London. One of the most fun was to go to the fanciest (so far) dinner of our lives at the two-Michelin Star restaurant named Sketch. There was literally a velvet rope with a line of people waiting to get in, with reservations we were ushered through each themed dining space to give us the grand tour (featured were the forest dining room and otherworldly bathrooms…a must see at this place), champagne to start off the meal, and a seven-course tasting menu consisting of flavored froth on a bunch of stuff like you’d get if you a judge on Top Chef. They always get stuff like a dill and fennel foam on sous vide salmon…which is actually really good. We worked slowly through the dinner and enjoyed every second…knowing full-well that this is a rare occasion to savor.
So that was R&R 2019. The nice thing about R&R is that it’s a two week vacation away from challenges at Post. The bad thing about it is that it’s two weeks away from our precious Paloma. We did find a (nice?) vodka at a local grocer in London that reminded us to get our butts back home to this angry kitty face! And maybe pack her a little blue coat and mouse-flavored pie if we find them at Duty Free.