Friday 30 April 2010

Alarms and Excursions

Today’s hint is this: when you go away on a journey, make sure you turn off any alarm clocks you leave behind.

I admit I’m not blameless in this regard. I once left my alarm (which is one of those that gets louder and louder the longer you leave it) set and swanned off to New York, causing some consternation for my flatmate who couldn’t work out how to turn it off. But I learned my lesson and have been very conscientious about this ever since.

This morning, I was woken up at 5.30 by an alarm going off somewhere in the house. Confused and still mostly asleep, I couldn’t work out where it was coming from. Eventually I gave up and put my head under the pillow.

I don’t think the owner of the alarm did this deliberately, but it does add insult to injury for the poor stay-at-home.

Thursday 29 April 2010


It doesn’t seem that long ago since the prospect of climbing a mountain filled me with fear and trepidation. ‘No, pleeeease don’t make me go! You can’t make me! I won’t!’ Of course they could, and they did. So my siblings and I climbed mountains, mostly under extreme protest. And then … I couldn’t tell you exactly when … something strange happened. I started to, well, like climbing mountains. To climb mountains of my own free will, even.

On Saturday, my lovely sister-in-law and I walked up Maulin. This really was returning to the scene of the crime because Maulin was a popular destination for our forced marches hikes of old.

You start off at Crone car park, just outside Enniskerry.

Then walk up a path through the forest, where bears used to live. At least that’s what my parents told me so obviously it’s true.

The path curls round the mountain and there’s a beautiful view down to the Powerscourt waterfall. You can see it was a bit hazy on Saturday, though it was actually quite warm.

Here’s looking over to Djouce – really a very nice mountain, didn’t deserve to have my sister and me weeping all over it.

The top was very windy, so we didn’t stay long …

... but went down the other side to find somewhere for our picnic. We passed a scout troop on the way – why is there always one awkward kid on his own? Awkward kid, Gillian and I are sure you’ll grow up to be the coolest one of all.

Our picnic (and it was a good one: samosas and biryanis from the Co-operative Food Market, apples and brownies) took place on a piece of mossy grass, sheltered by some evergreens.

And then, almost before we’d really got into our stride, we were back at the car. 2 ½ hours, including picnic. Why did it used to make me cry so much?

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Road Trip!

I am leading a very quiet life just at the moment, but next week I’m hitting the road again. This means fewer musings about cocktails and more posts about travelling. Unless, of course, I find any particularly special cocktails along the way.

Anyway, on Tuesday morning I’m taking the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead. Last year I managed to cure my fear of driving across the ramp onto the ferry, so am feeling quite relaxed about this.

Then I’m driving from Holyhead to Birmingham to collect my brother.

Then we’re driving to Dover.

Then we’re getting the ferry to Calais and spending a day meandering out way towards Paris. In my head, this means near-constant grazing on croissants, sandwiches and other yummies, but there might be an occasional sight to see too.

In Paris we have a quick turnaround – just time to pack up Cormac’s apartment and load it into the car. But I’m an old pro at this now.

Then we’re going to Caen, via Giverny, Mont St Michel and Utah Beach.

Then we’re getting the ferry to Portsmouth.

Then we’re driving to Holyhead to get one more ferry back to Dublin.

At least, that’s the plan.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Spring, Cocktails, Cherry Blossoms

Last night a friend and I drank bellinis and put the world to rights. This morning I’m still thinking about the bellini. It is a perfect cocktail for spring and Dublin is having a perfect spring at the moment: pink and white blossom, green shoots, mild weather – sun, even – and still light at half past eight in the evening.

This is the cherry tree outside my bedroom window. Inspired by the bellini and by spring in general, I’m thinking of creating a cocktail in its honour (I could write a poem, but the drink would be more enjoyable.) It should probably contain cherries of some sort but I don’t like cherry liqueur. Any suggestions?

Monday 26 April 2010

Guest Blog: Taking the Boat to England

Hints to Lady Travellers, uncomfortably aware of impending deadlines, has been leading a quiet life the last week or so. To provide you with a bit of excitement, I asked Luíseach to write a guest blog about her travels over the weekend and she did! Here it is, in its original, unexpurgated glory.

* * *

The year is 1845 2010, and this morning the Lady Traveller left her bed at an early hour in order to put the Lady Traveller’s Little Sister (LTLS) on the boat. A coffin ship, setting sail from Ireland’s green shores, in search of a better life, far from the famine volcanic ash cloud which has lately plagued us.

Only select elements of the above are true (disclaimer: the one about the search for a better life is definitely not, as I’m returning to attend to a rock-drawing project), but nevertheless, it is true that LTLS is going back to London 1845-style. It is perhaps unlikely that the original coffin ships had shamrocks on the outside and sold bad cappuccinos within, but there were definitely huddled masses yearning to breathe free this morning. The Jonathan Swift was swift enough however, and there was little need for the piles of sick bags (‘spuckbeutel’ in German apparently. Mellifluous, no?) that the cabin staff had thoughtfully placed on every available surface. God knows what went on earlier in the week when the airlines first shut down...

A mere two hours later found LTLS in Holyhead. No doubt many of you are familiar with the port of Holyhead, but it is my fervent hope that fewer of you are familiar with the town itself, where I had the dubious pleasure of spending four hours (I saved much money on my train ticket this way). Actually it’s not that bad, but there really isn’t a whole lot there to see. As the nice lady in the left luggage office told me “if you shut your eyes you’ll have a better view”. It was a nice day though, so I sat on a bench by the sea and read my book, ate an ice cream, and then got very lost while trying to get back to the train station (I nearly made it up a mountain).

The second leg of my journey was far more luxurious: saving roughly £50 by waiting in Holyhead for four hours, I decided to upgrade to first class on my four hour train to Euston, and was rewarded by free wifi, free tea, and lots of free biscuits.

Heartily recommended. The route the train takes is very pretty too, along the Welsh coastline, and past several llama farms (no lie). You even get to see the Menai suspension bridge too, so you get all the comely sights you would from the car journey, but with nice train people to feed you (sadly no complimentary alcohol on the cheap weekend upgrades) and handy toilets too. Unfortunately LTLS’s skill with a camera does not compare with the LT, so I have spared you my photographs of blurry llamas and trees (LT can show you my Austrian efforts if you wish – some interesting diagonal photos of trees and the side of the car window)

I still have another two hours on the train (we’ve stopped at Crewe) before I take my pack (the size of a small house; with a tent attached, see the upcoming attraction ‘LTLS goes to live in a Moroccan cave for four weeks’) and get on the bus to my house in London – I did think of offering a hint to lady travellers on London transport (Hint #1: don’t open fizzy drinks on the 390 bus to Archway; there are a lot of speed bumps) but am not entirely sure they’re particularly helpful. I will thus leave you with my general hint for the day: have an experienced LT serenade you with traditional ballads (See below) as you depart the port. Sadly she didn’t wear the hat, but I have hopes that some day she will don the peach polyester beret she had for her confirmation and sing to me.

Friday 23 April 2010

Books for Lady Travellers

The pile in the photo represents a small sample of the interesting and inspiring travel books I have read over the past nine months. Many of them have been by women – but not all.
The first book to mention isn’t in the photo because it’s out of print and I haven’t been able to track to a single copy of it outside a library. It is of course the original Hints to Lady Travellers, At Home and Abroad by Lillias Campbell Davidson, from which the lines under the blog title are taken. I’ve written about it here and here so will only add now that if anyone ever comes across a copy they can name their price (a dozen lemon tarts for example).
The second book, which has, I think, saved my sanity on more than one occasion, is Unsuitable for Ladies, An anthology of women travellers, edited by Jane Robinson. I think this is out of print too, but there are plenty of second hand copies available. The selection of writing is wonderful and the book introduced me to writers I don’t think I’d have come across otherwise. For example, there’s a description of a flea-ridden bed in Hungary from a book called (what else?) A Girl’s Wanderings in Hungary, written by a young woman by the name of Ellen Browning in 1896. Oh! vanity of vanities! Is anything more deceitful than hope of rest when fleas are around? The book provided comfort reading in the sense that, though I was travelling alone, it made me feel that I was part of a bigger group, somehow.
Then we have The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane which kept me awake on the Holyhead to Dublin ferry after having driven from Dublin to London and back and feeling very tired and emotional. As the person who gave me the book suggested, it’s a reminder of all the beautiful places close to home in Ireland and Britain.
Two books by Paul Theroux, both about train trips: The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express. One of the core ideas in both books is that the journey begins at the beginning – as soon as you step outside your front door – not just after you’ve travelled 10,000km by boat/plane/train. He also says something about travelling solo which has stuck in my mind ever since I read it last August (I found this excerpt while I was in Greece and it was so freakishly apt for my state of mind at the time that it felt like some kind of deus ex machina. If you can say that about a book.) Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess you have to be alone and unencumbered. But, of course, he points out the flip side: Traveling on your own can be terribly lonely … I think of evening in a hotel room in a strange city. My diary has been brought up to date; I hanker for company. What to do?
Isabella Bird Bishop had what they call the pen of a ready writer and a talent for finding herself in the remotest of places carrying out the most prosaic of activities. I am very fond of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (in fact A Lady’s Life in… was an early contender for the title of this blog) and am planning to read Unbeaten Tracks in Japan as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy.
And then there’s Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love, a present from my wise mama. This book is fabulous – almost as extraordinary as its author whose biography I was about to volunteer to write until my mama presented me with a companion book by Anne Boston: Lesley Blanch - Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores. The Wilder Shores of Love consists of four biographies of four women who found themselves in exotic circumstances beyond their wildest imaginings – well, actually, in a couple of cases it was exactly because of their wild imaginings. The stories blend fact with … imagining. In one story, that of ‘Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a convent girl captured by corsairs and sold into the harem of the Grand Turk’, Blanch fills in the ginormous gaps in the evidence with over the top descriptions of what might have happened. But she does it so well, and it’s all so much fun. And then she coined the phrase ‘character plus opportunity equals fortune’. The biography of Blanch herself is also excellent and good at demonstrating that Blanch filled in the gaps in her own life as imaginatively as she did in the lives of the women she wrote about.

There are more, but I’ll come back to them another time. Today is Official Hints Day and the hint is simple: read one of these books.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Perfect Day

I was feeling a bit uninspired this morning when it came to writing my blog. But then it occurred to me that yesterday really was a perfect day – a gem in miniature as my English teacher used to say (although she was talking about Silas Marner and – just between you and me – I think she was mad because when I went to university almost the first thing I realised is that it is a dreadful book). But back to yesterday. This is what I did (and forgive me if you fall asleep into your keyboard reading this):

I did some work in the morning.

I entertained (is that the right word?) the plumber. Well, I made interested noises when he explained to me about cisterns.

I spoke to a friend in Australia.

I went to the library.

I bought flowers and a very handsome free-range chicken.

I made two trips to the post office.

Luíseach made us delicious gin, elderflower and soda cocktails. Oh, and then she followed up with lentils and Toulouse sausages.

I read my book and then the three of us watched Judge John Deed and commented on all the stupid things he did.

And the sun was shining for most of it.

So here’s to the perfectly ordinary, ordinarily perfect days. And because now that song is in my head:

Wednesday 21 April 2010


More Wicklow! This is a record for me.

Máire-Áine called me last week and asked me if I’d go with her to the Tinahely Walking Festival. A festival of walking? Ma, che cosa? Turns out that it consisted of guided walks along some recently opened trails near Tinahely – which is so far into Wicklow it’s almost in Carlow.

On Saturday morning early we set off – it was another beautiful day in Wicklow. Gathered at the community centre and were on our way just before noon. There was a guide with us – and very friendly he was too. However, while he kept an eye out for waifs and strays, there was no pressure to stick with the group and after the first part of the walk to the trailhead, Máire-Áine and I (super hikers that we are) ended up more or less on our own, between two groups.

I took photos of everything that caught my eye – so this is more of a pictorial essay, really.

Tuesday 20 April 2010


From Roundwood, take the Glendalough road. Drive for about 2kms and you will come to a left turn almost obscured by gorse bushes, and a church tower just visible at the top of the hill.

Drive up the lane to the church. Parking is by way of a convenient ditch.

Push open the rusty gate.

The church has no roof,

no windows.

But it has a view …

And in the corner is the the grave of Erskine Hamilton Childers, fourth President of Ireland.

Monday 19 April 2010

Avoca & Ash Cloud Avoidance

It’s a conundrum: on the one hand, if the weather stays as sunny and lovely as it was all weekend, then we won’t want to leave.
On the other hand, if the weather stays as sunny and lovely as it was all weekend, then we won’t be able to leave. I may have to take a boat to go on my BIG TRIP (details to follow and no, I don’t mean the trip to Wales.)

Fuelled by our love of disaster films, we have been imagining Armageddon-style mercy missions to Iceland. As Luíseach pointed out, the best disaster films of recent years all feature black US presidents (Morgan Freeman for the win) so after Obama’s election it was really only a question of time before we had a disaster-film scenario.

But Friday’s adventure was less disaster film, more twilight zone. L and I headed south to Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow and the Avoca mothership. For the non-Irish readership, Avoca is what I think they call a lifestyle brand. They sell pretty things for the home, pretty clothes and pretty food – all a bit on the pricey side but, unquestionably, very pretty.

The branch in Kilmacanogue is obviously the destination of choice for the yummy mummies of South County Dublin. We arrived at noon and the huge car park was full.

Should we have heeded the signs?

We had lunch in the Fern House café which really is a lovely space – especially on a sunny day.

And then we browsed,


Browsed some more.

But we resisted temptation and bought nothing. Well, no, we bought a loaf of bread, a scone, a rice krispie square and a raspberry cheesecake brownie (which we got for €1 because it had an accident going into the box.) The best souvenirs are often edible, I find.

Luíseach fell for this giraffe:

And then we went looking for a dead president. That really does sound like something from a disaster film, but it was actually a rather lovely experience. Pictures tomorrow!

Friday 16 April 2010


For today’s Official Hints Day post I was going to write about some of the excellent books by lady travellers (and a few men) I’ve read over the last few months.

But I didn’t get round to writing it yesterday and now I’m about to leave on a mini road trip (a rd tp?) with my little sister so, instead, today’s hint is a bit of a cop out.

It is simply a link to the home of the hint (or tip, they like to call it), so simple, so straightforward, so useful Time magazine, which selected it as one of the best blogs of 2009, calls it ‘a survival guide to the Great Recession. Lifehacker is a "Hints from Heloise" for the digital age.’

Ps or if you just want something pretty to look at, and, like me and about seven trillion other women, are obsessed with Michelle Obama’s outfits, go to

See, websites for everyone!

Thursday 15 April 2010

News From the Front

I’m writing this in the café of the Science Gallery at Trinity. I have some time to kill while I wait for a fetcher to get the papers I ordered so I decided to try the coffee here.

I wasn’t very complimentary about the Science Gallery the first time I visited and I still have mixed feelings about it. I really want to like it because I think it’s a good idea, but the level of interpretation continues to annoy me.

The current exhibition is called the Hyperbolic Crochet Reef. I actually first heard about this project when I was working in Cape Town. An artist at Greatmore Studios (where I volunteered) is involved in the project, which was set up by two Australian sisters but invites participants from all over the world. They’ve set out to crochet a reef while also demonstrating something called hyperbolic geometry. Apparently this is a special kind of geometry that crochet is very good at demonstrating. More than that, I can’t tell you, because the explanations are baffling, to say the least:

There were several of these figures, but no text or anything to explain just what the @£%& they mean. I love the idea of art and science combining, would love to know more about hyperbolic geometry, but am thwarted by lame ass efforts at explaining.

On the other hand, the crochet is super cool (and that’s not something I ever imagined saying about crochet):

Am I being too harsh? Am I just having a stupid day? Do these diagrams make sense to anyone else?

Oh, by the way, the photos are from my phone, which is why they're all a bit blurry. I’m telling you, this is real citizen journalism. And now I must finish my coffee and go back to the library.

PS The coffee is good.

PPS Am posting this from another library. Ssssh.

Wednesday 14 April 2010


After I’d been living in England for a few years, one of my friends asked me if I was going to apply for a British passport.

‘But why?’ I asked, perplexed. Friend ran through various benefits – all of which I countered, saying my Irish passport was just as beneficial and, in some places, more welcome than a British passport. Looking for the argument that would convince me, friend finally asked me how I could pass up the opportunity to be under the protection of Her Britannic Majesty.

Well, obviously, this nearly swayed me, but I managed to resist.

I was reminded of this conversation yesterday in the National Archives. I was leafing through inter-governmental memos from the 1930s and 40s and came across some notes about the status of Irish passports. The Irish state was undergoing a rebranding exercise at the time (a lot of it consisted of making things green – postboxes and passports just two examples of same) and had recently decided to create the office of a President to be head of state. Except, you see, this was only an internal President; once you left Ireland you were under the protection of (ahem) His Britannic Majesty. It was in his name passports and credentials for Irish diplomats were issued.

The papers I looked at were full of confusion about this, made worse by the fact that when they coloured the Irish passports green, they decided to change the wording of the preamble at the front, so now it read: We, the Minister for External Affairs of the Irish Free State request and require in the name of His Majesty…. (no clue as to why the Minister adopted the royal we):

Why, many people asked – not unreasonably – wasn’t it the President requesting and requiring Foreign People Abroad to allow the bearer to pass freely? The Minister for External Affairs (also the Taoiseach, also Eamon de Valera, whose every move was greeted by the opposition yelling ‘it’s a plot A PLOT I TELL YOU’) explained that it was one thing for him, a lowly minister, to represent the king in this instance. But if the President issued (so to speak) passports, he would only be doing it as the king’s minion (to paraphrase) and this would be a blow to the dignity of the President’s office.

Eventually the complicated situation of having two heads of state (one for indoors wear, one for outdoors) was resolved. Ireland became a republic and since 1949 it has been the President who accredits diplomats. Except, EXCEPT, Irish passports are still issued as a request from the Minister for Foreign Affairs – not from the head of state.

Now, I may not have wanted the protection of Her Britannic Majesty, but I wouldn’t mind a discreet message from Her Excellency, the President. But perhaps the powers that be decided the President was well out of the business of passports. And at least now I (and you) know why Irish passports are the way they are.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

To a Lighthouse

Sunday's walk by the sea inspired me to dig out this homage to Edward Hopper, taken in Cape Cod a couple of years ago. I love lighthouses. In one of my favourite ever children’s books The Saturdays there’s an old lady called Mrs Oliphant who owns a lighthouse. It has been my ambition ever since I first read the book at the age of seven to be befriended by a kind, rich and interesting old lady (who had been kidnapped by gypsies as a child) and would invite me to spend summers in her lighthouse/vacation home.

My other ambition (dating from about the same time) is to write a book some day as good as The Saturdays. Elizabeth Enright’s books are funny, warm, real and elegant – as I imagine she was. (PLUS EXTRA BONUS TRIVIA: her uncle was Frank Lloyd Wright.) The books both smack of their 1940s setting and remain timeless.