Planning and Enjoying Road Trips Around the World Hints and hacks that will help you get more out of your holiday adventures. Hi, I'm David Morris and I'm not sure whether the road trip dreamer is me or you. Probably both of us. I love planning and exploring the world by road.
A bit of the Bard to begin and a rollicking railroad ride at the end, with one of New Zealand’s most isolated villages, reveling in a jaw-breaker of a name, Whangamomona, in between.
The Forgotten Highway is worth discovering.
State Highway 43, a 151km road from coastal Stratford through the heart of the North Island hill country to Taumarunui in the north, is one of the great adventure road trips in New Zealand.
It follows the line of an ancient Maori trade route. In the 19th Century a bridle path was cut through, and later the government of the day, in burst of pioneering enthusiasm, decided to drive a rail line between the two towns. Work was started in 1901 but took another 32 years before it was completed. It was built with picks and shovels and the back-breaking work of hundreds of men living in conditions of great deprivation.
Though much more traveled these days than when I first explored it 25 years ago, it is still a chance to get away from traffic and crowds of selfie-stick-wielding tourists to discover the remnants of pioneering times last century.
Along the way you’ll find the mouldering remains of villages that flourished during the 50 years it took to drive a road, well, more like a track, through what have been labelled the Heartbreak Hills.
For years men and women, families, struggled against the isolation, the relentless rain, and the bush trying to carve out a farming life. Most failed, beaten back by the elements and a landscape that did not take well to being stripped of its natural forest cover.
Derelict farmhouse, a remnant of pioneer days on the Forgotten Highway
Today on the four or five hours it takes to traverse the road you’ll enjoy unspoiled bush, the towering 500m high cliffs of the spectacularly rugged Tarangakau Gorge, pick your way through the eerie 180m long Moki Tunnel, and catch glimpses, vistas even, of the surrounding volcanoes . . . Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngaruahoe and Tongariro.
Along the way, a 15 or 20 minute walk will take you to lovely Mt Dampier Falls.
Then there is, of course, Whangamomona, fiercely sticking to its reputation as one of the country’s most unspoiled pioneer villages. Nothing much has changed in a hundred years, and the locals like it that way.
The Independent Republic of Whangamomona
Mark you, the Whangamomona Hotel is now a lot more visitor friendly than when I first breasted the bar and asked if one could get something to eat. Without saying so it was made clear that this was a place for drinking. Eating? Not so much! With a bit of a shuffle the proprietress rustled up a fairly basic cheese and pickle sandwich.
Today, oh, how different. It is a welcome oasis of good food and good beer. You can also get a bed for the night. Not exactly like the Mandarin or the Hilton. Share fac. and all that. But a great way to catch an echo of life when times were simpler and travelers’ wants and needs were less demanding.
The Whangamomona Hotel
Back in 1998 local authority bureaucrats, without any consultation with the Whanga locals, decided to split the district between two local authority regions, Taranaki and Manawatu-Wanganui. Same said locals were more than a bit miffed and gave same said bureaucrats a raised index finger by declaring the town an independent republic.
So now, every second January, the village celebrates Independence Day by holding such rustic events as sheep racing, gumboot throwing, possum skinning and whip cracking.
Presidential elections are held. The first president, Ian Kjestrup, lasted 10 years before taking early retirement. He hadn’t planned on becoming president but his name was put into the ballot without his knowledge.
Unfortunately, the second president ‘Billy the Kid’, the first goat elected, only survived the position 18 months before dying on active duty – weed-eating on the town hillside. Tai the Poodle was duly elected in 2003, unfortunately 12 months later there was an assassination attempt on his life and he had to retire due to this leaving him in a severe nervous condition. Murtle the Turtle was elected as president and was in office for 10 years until October 2015 when sadly he, too, passed away.
Vicky Pratt, one of the hotel’s owners was then “elected” without her knowledge. She was working in the kitchen when nominations were called and thereby failed to withdraw the nomination. At least it brought the village into the 21st century by electing a woman to the top job.
So as you can guess this is a village with an eccentric spirit.
The Forgotten Highway cuts away north from Stratford close to the coast in southern Taranaki, New Zealand.
Hathaway, Romeo, Portia, Lear, Hamlet . . . do you detect a pattern here? They are all street names in Stratford, 67 of them, which may have something to do with Stratford-on-Avon, where William Shakespeare lived. Otherwise it’s pretty much just another Taranaki cow town. Or is that a little rough?
It was originally called Whakaahurangi, so you can understand why in 1877 they changed the name to Stratford-Upon-Patea. The idea was that the Patea River was much like England’s Avon River. Yeah? Nah.
Town’s population 5740 at the most recent census. Altitude 312m
Doctors: Avon Medical Care Centre 137 Miranda St South, Ph 06-765-5454. Regan St Medical Centre 95 Regan St. Ph 06-765-8178.
Fuel. Don’t head out on to the Forgotten Highway with less than half a tank of gas. Best of all fill up here.
Laundromat: Broadway Laundrette, on the main road.
NZ Post 4e Miranda St Ph 06-765-6009
Police Broadway. Ph 06-765-7145
Public Telephones on the main shopping st.
Tourist Information Stratford i-Site, Prospero Pl, Broadway Ph 06 765-6708 Free-ph 0800-765-6708 Emailinfo@stratford.govt.nz
The Glockenspiel Tower. Stratford’s glockenspiel is unique in New Zealand. The glockenspiel plays a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet four times daily (at 10am, 1pm, 3pm and 7pm) with figures made by the curator of the Tawhiti Museum, Nigel Ogle. The glockenspiel performs for approximately 5 minutes, after the hour chimes are finished.
However, your best bet is the 7pm performance if you want to get a video of the show. During the day the constant rumble of passing trucks kinda ruins the mood.
Shakee Pear Cafe Taranaki Pioneer Village, 3912 Mountain Rd Ph 07 765-5235. Great little cafe. Stratford Café and Bakery Broadway. Reasonably priced with generous servings.
MUSEUM Stratford Pioneer Villageon the main road, south end of town. Outdoor museum with a collection of early buildings. Got a good cafe on site, too.
VEHICLE REPAIR Graeme Goble Motors, 115 Regan St. Ph 06-765-5211.
WALKS The Goblin Forest (Pictured). Take a walk through this preternaturally green forest and let your imagination run riot. Goblins, elves, hobbits . . . are they lurking among the trees? Or if you are Irish it could be the Little Folk themselves, so it could.
It is otherwise known as the Kamahi Walk because it is primarily kamahi trees. Take Pembroke Rd out of town. Half way up Pembroke Rd stop for a great panorama of the region – Mt Egmont on one side, Ruapehu / Tongariro on the other.
The Goblin Forest Walk.
Wilkies Pools. Also out that way. A series of plunge pools carved into the stream bed by the abrasive effect of water-borne sand.
Maunganui Ski Field Walk. In summer you can take an easy walk up the track leading to the skifield. It starts at the Plateau Carpark and clambers through the rugged Manganui Gorge then climbs across a carpet of alpine flower-strewn greys and greens and browns, taking about an hour to reach the skifield. On the ski area itself the going is as easy or as hard as you want to make it. The view is glorious – on a clear day you can even see the South Island.
But remember, this is an alpine environment and the weather can change within minutes. Take a parka, warm clothing, snack bars and let someone know where you are going. If you have the family with you, stay close to the ski tow line – it will guide you down the mountain if the weather closes in. You reach the Plateau Carpark by taking Pembroke Rd on the northern edge of the town.
The Carrington Walkway. Runs through King Edward Park and the McCullough Dell which is a mass planting of rhododendrons and azaleas. Do this especially in October / November when the flowers are at their best.
After leaving Stratford, as you head out across the level landscape between here and the hills ahead, stop for a look back at Mt Egmont/Taranaki.
Mt Egmont/Taranaki as seen from the road out of Stratford.
The Heartbreak Hills
The hills you are about to encounter could aptly be called the Heartbreak Hills. After the first World War we still believed we could build a world fit for heroes to live in.
The returning soldiers were given land in this area. It was a tangle of rugged hills cloaked in dense bush. The settlers simply put a match to the forest, not even bothering to harvest the beautiful native timber. They sowed grass seed on the still-warm ashes and for a while the remains of the fertility in the ash was enough to nourish the grass. A forest’s soil, however, is a delicate balance and without a constant shower of leaves rotting down to become humus, ready to be taken up again by the trees, the soil quickly breaks down.
For a while the forest’s virgin fertility and high post-war commodity prices kept the farmers in the black, but then came the disastrous plunge in prices in 1921. The land began to reclaim its own. Unable to beat back the constant regrowth of scrub or keep down the persistent weeds, beaten by soil erosion and battered by cash shortages that starved them of investment capital, the soldier-settlers abandoned their holdings. The crash of the late 20s and the second World War accelerated that process.
The result, as you’ll see in some places, are derelict farmhouses hidden in the undergrowth and bush.
After WW2 the assault on these wet hills was renewed by a new army of returning soldiers. This time, however, the government of the day broke in the land using machinery and new farming techniques.
The soldiers were given training before taking on their farms. The land itself was more carefully chosen.
The step change that created profitable farms was the advent of aerial topdressing. With the rapid decline of natural fertility, phosphorous, in the form of super-phosphate, had to be applied to maintain plant growth. The only economic way of doing that was from the air and a fleet of aircraft, many of them converted from wartime configuration, began pouring millions of tonnes of fertiliser on to the hillsides.
That storm, of fertiliser from the sky is what finally beat these rainy hills. It has allowed a dense sward of grass to overpower the scrub and the weeds.
The result, as you’ll see, is flourishing farmland finally carved from the Heartbreak Hills.
22.9km The Strathmore Saddle. From the summit you get panoramic views of Mt Egmont/Taranaki and the Central Plateau.
View of Mt Taranaki from the summit of the Strathmore Saddle
35.5 km Te Wera Arboretum. An easy walk through trees planted by NZ Forest Service to trial tree species for a range of productive and other uses. It contains more than 80 exotic conifer and broadleaf species of trees which are labelled with names and the year of planting. You’ll get views of regenerating native bush, fern gullies and wetland.
45.1km The Pohukura Saddle is named after a prominent Maori Chief and provides views into the valley used as a large railway construction campsite.
55.8km The Whangamomona Saddle.
61.6 km Whangamomona. Rugby fans might be keen to know that Whangamomona is the only club in NZ that is allowed to wear an all-black strip – as they had it well before NZ’s All Blacks. The team also competes for the Dean Cup – the oldest rugby challenge cup in New Zealand dating back to 1907 and contested between three teams in the district – Whangamomona, Strathmore and Toko in East Taranaki.
Lunchtime at the local roadside milk-bar.
73.9 The Tahora Saddle offers spectacular views of three prominent Maori Pa sites, railway tunnels and the central North Island Mountains.
80.8 The Moki Tunnel is a 180m long single lane tunnel built in 1936. It was originally built five metres high. However, with the introduction of stock trucks and trailers onto the road, this was not high enough so in 1985, the floor was lowered a further two metres. A few years ago a witty traveler put a sign on it saying “Hobbit’s Hole” and the name stuck.
The Hobbit’s Hole, aka the Moki Tunnel.
82.4km Turn off on to Moki Rd to visit Mt Damper Falls a 14km detour. At 74m it’s one of the North Island’s highest waterfalls, spilling over a papa bluff into a bush-clad basin. The falls are particularly spectacular after heavy rain. There’s a 1km, 20min hike from the parking area to the falls, and if you want to get up close and personal you can clamber down a stairway to the base of the torrent.
From the car park step over the stile and walk over the formed track beside the creek. The first 10 minutes are over open farmland – respect private property, leave gates as you find them and stay on the track. Follow the track until you reach the bridge, from whence the bush starts. The track descends gradually to two viewing platforms.
Please be aware that the track crosses privately-owned farmland and during lambing season, from 1 August to 31 October, you need to take particular care not to disturb the stock.
There is a long drop toilet and two picnic tables at the beginning of the track.
Mt Dampier Falls
90.3km The Tangarakau Gorge You’ll be on a gravel-surfaced road by now. There’s 12km of it. Think positively . . . it gives you a small sample of what all the roads were like back in the day. It will take you through this spectacular sheer-sided gorge, picking its way through lush native bush.
Tangarakau Gorge – 12 kms of rough road.
Nearby, just off the main road, is Tangarakau township. Or what’s left of it. It had its heyday when the government was driving the railway through the area. In those days the population was around 1200 souls and the town had shops, a post office, police station and a bank. It even had a coal-fired power station that supplied electricity to local houses.
135km Laurens Lavender Farm. Adjacent to the famous Whanganui River where you can have tea or coffee among surroundings of lavender fields, farm land and bush. Find out more at http://www.laurenslavender.co.nz/
148.4 Taumarunui. A rural service and shopping centre and the largest town in the Ruapehu District. Located on the Main Trunk railway line, it’s probably best known for its railway history – it even has a song about its early rail history “Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line”.
Yeah, OK, the song is a bit rustic, rural, colonial even . . . but hey it was written in the 50s when New Zealand was, well, a bit rustic, rural, colonial even.
I remember stopping there in the middle of the night when traveling on the Limited Express from Wellington to Auckland – a steam train no less. (I’m very old, see). You’d race off the train into the cafeteria, buy sandwiches and a cup of tea served in cups that were so solid you could drive nails with them. You’d settle back in your seat, put the tea and sammies on the floor while you adjusted the railway pillows used to soften seats as hard as a harlot’s heart . . . just then the engine would re-couple with the carriages, sending tea and sandwiches sprawling all over the floor. So it was back out in a tumbling rush to get a refill before the whistle sounded. I guess it was a way for the Railways Department, as it was then, to increase sales of what was otherwise bloody awful food.
Long before its was a railway town, however, it was an important transport hub . . . it lies at the confluence of the Whanganui and Ongarue Rivers, important navigable routes in the days before there were road or railways. Both Maori and early European used the rivers as highways. The Whanganui River is, in fact, the longest navigable river tin the country.
The name derives from a 17th C Maori chief, Maru, whose skill in battle fended off marauders from further north. Tau mean “you”, nui means “great”, thus the name means Maru the Great.
BASICS Doctor: Taumarunui Medical Centre, Kururau Rd. Ph 07-895 3333
The Family Clinic, 17 Morero Tce. Ph 07-895 9283. NZ Post: 47 Miriama St Police: 10 Turaki St. Ph (07) 895 8119 Public Telephones on the main shopping st. Toilets on the w. side of the road in the middle of the town. Visitor Information, Taumarunui Visitor Centre in the old Railway Station, also on the w. side of the main road in the middle of the town.Ph 07 895 7494
The guys at Hand Luggage only recently posted their “17 beautiful Places in Southern England”.
One thing I certainly agree with them: It’s hard to select the “best of” anything when it comes to road trips in Britain.
But here’s their take on the south.
If visiting these places has any appeal – and it absolutely should! – you can do it more easily with Great British Road Trips.
Our touring plans will take you easily and stress freely though not to the south of Britain but everywhere else.
Here’s what the Hand Luggage team says:
“Look, it can be tough when trying to whittle down a firm plan of spots to explore on your next trip around England, especially if you’re short on time. This is why I wanted to share some of the best places in the south of England to visit on your next trip. Some the cities, others are tiny little hamlets, but what they all have in common are being places you should definitely think of exploring.
“Now, there’s no firm or set rule in what’s considered to be the south of England, but, to keep things simple, I’m not going any further north than the Cotswolds. This way, If you’re staying near the southern coastline you can almost be guaranteed a cluster of little stops along your trip.
“With that in mind, I’ve popped a list of some cool places in the south of England to visit whilst you’re here.”
Not being an avid football fan I probably wouldn’t be interested in taking a tour of the West Ham United stadium which was built as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Stadium in London.
But take a look at the adrenalin-rush-inducing ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Arcelor Mittal Orbit
Designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond for the London 2012 Olympics, it is the UK’s tallest piece of public art at 114.5m height. It is 22m taller than the Statue of Liberty and offers an excellent view of the various sporting venues of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as well as great views of the London skyline.
All well and good so far. Nice, in fact. But not enough to compel me to make the journey out there.
Until I discovered the Slide!
The Slide is the world’s tallest and longest tunnel slide, weaving its way through the red steel frame of the building. The ride, with its twists and turns, takes around a minute but feels longer than that. As you zip down the slide, you will catch glimpses of the Olympic Park and the London skyline and there are some sections where you will be plunged into darkness guessing which way you are gonna drop next! It is a fun and exhilarating experience and if you love thrill, this is definitely not to be missed.
Warning: This post contains images that are sexually explicit and will offend you. They certainly offended me.
The deviants who own this campervan company, Wicked Campers, should be put out of business
They once said a bit of sexual violence never hurt anyone. Can you believe that?
This photo of a Wicked Campers van was taken in early 2019 on the road between Sydney and the Gold Coast.
It shows that the morally bankrupt creeps that run this low rent outfit have not a jot of honesty to their name. They promised, back in 2014, to get rid of this smut from their vehicles. Clearly, their word has the same quality as the obscene messages they take “pride” in.
What sort of twisted moral compass thinks that it’s OK to have graphics like this on their product?
Would you seriously like to have your kids in the car driving behind this piece of bottom-dwelling visual slime? How would you like your daughter to be seen in a vehicle with that sort of message?
“Sexual violence never hurt anyone” – John Webb
The low-life Australian owner of the company, John Webb, a man with clearly not an ethical cell in his simian-like brain, once actually said this, in reply to an attack by then New Zealand Associate Tourism Minister, Paula Bennett : “A bit of sexual violence never hurt anyone Paula. You should try a bit. Lol.”
Can you believe that? Sexual violence never hurt anyone!!?? I wonder what the #MeToo campaign would make of that little misogynistic gem.
Here’s a few more examples of their twisted “humour”:
“Great Last Minute Gift – A Blow Job”.
Or these images:
If there are women in any of these vans what sort of message does that convey to the weirdos out there? Like, “Hey guys, we’re up for it”. That will not end well. Only common sluts would be willing to be seen in a vehicle with such erotically inviting messages.
They’re not “edgy”, they’re offensive
The creeps that run this business would probably describe their designs as “edgy”. I’ve always felt that “edgy” is usually a proxy for “offensive”.
In fact they think it’s hilarious, relying on the P.T.Barnum edict “All publicity is good publicity, even bad publicity”.
They’ve been slagged off repeatedly in both Australia and New Zealand but seem to go with the promotional plan of “More? Worse?” and get away with it.
The vans were banned in Queensland under a law passed in 2016 but they have little difficulty in skirting around any attempt to put the brakes on them.
This man lies through his teeth
The scum-bag Webb once promised, under public pressure, to clean up his shabby act. That was back in 2014.He promised they’d repaint the vans within six months.Shows you what piece of human excrement he really is. Lies through his teeth then laughs in your face.
You should send email torrents to lawmakers demanding that they ban these grubby rattletraps from the roads.
In particular get on to your local campgrounds and demand that they refuse entry to any vehicle with offensive graphics.
What’s more, call out the dumb-arses that actually rent these things. Even better, take to the offending graphics with a can of spray paint. Make it plain that only someone with the emotional maturity of a rutting rabbit would be seen in them.
Give these morons hell
Girls, if you see the sort of testosterone-soaked morons who rent this rolling rubbish, give them hell. Tell them exactly what you think of them. Give ‘em both verbal barrels at close range.
With a bit of luck the message will get through to these emotionally-challenged brain dead renters that this is not OK . . . and certainly won’t deliver on what they hope for. Only a sexually stunted idiot would think that this sort of message would be attractive to today’s young women.
If you check in to a campground that has accepted one of these pieces of graphical garbage, check out. Tell the campground people you will not stay at any place that permits occupancy by this sort of verbal sewage. Demand your money back. The campground might then get the message that it’s not good to be seen slumming with the bottom-dwellers of the tourist business.
If the company’s customers find that they are refused entry to campgrounds they’ll quickly spread the word that Wicked Campers should be avoided at any cost.
That way you can hit the half-wits that run this gutter-level business in the only place it hurts – their pockets.
Would you be surprised to learn that wine production has been part of English history for nearly 2,000 years? Vines have been growing there ever since the Romans introduced them to the countryside. More recently, vineyards have sprung up across England and in this blog post from Visit Britain are five you can visit.
Apart from these five you can also, as part of a Great British Road Trip between Portsmouth and Winchester, visit the oldest vineyard in Britain at Hambledon.
Chapel Downs vineyard in Kent, which supplied the wine to Kate and William’s wedding.
One of the winemakers, Chapel Downs, was the supplier of wine, a Rose Brut, for Kate and William’s wedding. The same vineyard supplies Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants and, until they closed recently, Jamie Oliver’s establishments.
Among the five listed there are also the winemakers who are featured at Fortnum and Masons, the royal grocers, as well as the most northerly vineyard just out of York.
Veteran travel blogger Nomadic Matt has posted an excellent article on buying travel insurance, including recommendations on the best insurers.
The most important advice I can give you on this topic is to buy your insurance as soon as you buy any travel product – air fares, a cruise, accommodation, car rental, coach tour. Whatever it is, insure it as soon as you pay for it.
The worst mistake you can make is to think “I’ll do it closer to the departure date”.
They say a week is a long time in politics, well a day is a long time in the travel industry.
It can all go pear-shaped for the most obscure of reasons.
A dopey digger driver caused multi-million dollar losses
For instance, would you think a clumsy digger driver in Northland, New Zealand, could disrupt your travel plans?
This fellow struck the fuel pipeline that transports, among other things, avgas to the waiting aircraft at Auckland International Airport.
It’s a 168 kilometre buried pipeline running from the Marsden Point Refinery to a bulk oil storage terminal at Wiri in South Auckland. It was shut down for 10 days following the discovery of a leak on 14 September 2017.
The result was cancellation of flights not just in New Zealand but right throughout airline networks.
If your flight was cancelled it was too late to buy insurance against such an event. You’ve done your dough, Joe.
It’s one of the essentials for your trip
Nomadic Matt says “Travel insurance is one of the most important things you’ll need for your trip. You wouldn’t have a car without car insurance, a home without home insurance, and you can’t have a trip without travel insurance.
“Travel insurance is worth getting because travel insurance is what will provide you with medical coverage when you get sick or injured, reimburse you when your camera breaks, your flight is canceled, a family member dies and you have to come home, if lose a bag, or something is stolen.
“It’s all-purpose emergency coverage and is the single most important thing you should get for your trip (but hope to never have to use).
No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to Belfast. For two reasons, both stemming from dark times in its history: The Titanic Belfast and a tour of the Badlands, Shankhill Road and Falls Road, the frontlines in the worst of The Troubles late last century.
Naturally there are other things to see and do, but these two are a must and between them will account for a full day. The Titanic Belfast experience is at least a five hour visit. And don’t short sell it on time. Do it all and do it properly or don’t do it at all.
Whoever designed this attraction is a genius. Not just in the brilliant shape of the main building, but in the little things. The details.
A major piece of advice: Take the official tour. You will get so much more out of your visit than if you just wander around aimlessly.
For example you will learn that the height of the exhibition building is exactly the same height as Titanic.
The Titanic Belfast Musem
The last message
Here’s another snippet:
If you look down on the plaza in front of the building from one of its upper floors you can see a line of wooden seats.
Take the tour and discover.
The seats come in two lengths, short and long. You will learn that they are Morse code signals.
They spell out the very last signals sent by the stricken liner as she sank into the icy Atlantic.
In those days the international distress signal was CQD. Today it’s SOS. So the line of seats, as they curve around the front of the building spell out
“DE (this is) MGY MGY MGY (Titanic’s call sign) CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD”.
Except for the last two sets of seats. They are just dah dit dah dit / dah dah dit dah . . .
C-Q . . .
The signalman remained at his telegraph calling for help until the waters closed around him and cut short that last message.
Take the tour to get the inside story
Miss the official tour and you miss many stories like that. Stories that bring to life not just Ship 401, the Titanic’s construction number, but the vast enterprise that was Harland and Wolff, where 15000 men and women toiled in conditions that wouldn’t be tolerated today to build not just the Titanic but hundreds of other vessels of various sizes and type.
Walk on to the slipways where Ship 401 was taking shape alongside its sister ship, the Olympic. Lines drawn on the slipway mark the dimensions of the hull, steel posts down the length of the slipway reference its height. Walk and be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the enterprise.
Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices, now part of the Titanic Hotel
Harland and Wolff have now gone elsewhere but their original headquarters buildings remain. The main offices of the company and the drawing rooms where the designs took shape have been converted into a hotel, The Titanic Hotel.
On the official tour you are shown through the hotel. You will see the office of Lord William Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolffe. This is the very room where he and Sir Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line, the Titanic’s owner, met to agree on the construction of the three most luxurious ships afloat.
Rival shipping line, Cunard, was making much of the speed of its vessels. Its ships, the Lusitania and the Mauretania between 1907 and 1909, held the Blue Riband for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing.
Sir Bruce foresaw that speed wasn’t everything. The well-moneyed tycoons on each side of the Atlantic would be wooed more by opulence than shaving a few hours off the journey. Not unlike today as airlines put more focus on the comfort of premium passenger by reducing the amount of leg-room in steerage class.
Incidentally, the Titanic Hotel is not unreasonably priced. You can get rooms from as little as £110 a night.
What about the workers?
Inside the dramatically shaped exhibition building you’ll get up close and personal with the lives of the working men and women who, with great pride, spent their lives building these engineering marvels of the time.
You’ll get a ride in a sort of chairlift that will take you inside the hull of the ship during construction so you can experience vicariously and without permanent hearing loss the working conditions. The noise of millions of rivets being hammered home hard meant many of the workers were stone deaf.
They worked at great heights without the kind of safety equipment rules we take for granted today. Several workers fell to their death during the build.
No workers’ compensation in those days, though Harland and Wolff were regarded as excellent employers.
Belfast was one of the great shipbuilding cities of its era and the slow death of the industry hit the city hard.
Harland and Wolff built their last ship in 2003 but they did not go out of business. Like any well-run company they got out of a dying business into one of the new sunrise industries. They now build wind-power turbines as well as doing ship repair and refitting, bridge building and building and maintaining off-shore oil platforms.
Go to Belfast, definitely book a tour through the Titanic Belfast. I would recommend booking one of the tours earlier in the day before the coach hordes descend.
Who, in the turbulent years of the 70s and 80s when hard men waged war in the streets of the Shankhill and Falls Rd areas, would have believed that it would one day become a tourist attraction?
When Ireland finally gained independence from Britain in 1922 there had to be a compromise (isn’t there always in political solutions) that accommodated the large Protestant northern counties who looked to London as their capital.
The answer was to divide the island in twain – Ireland and Northern Ireland. In fairness to the pollies of the day it was probably the only practical solution, but it brought with it the fast-germinating bitter seeds of a conflict that would last until the later part of the century.
Discrimination against Catholics
Catholics in the newly created province were treated shabbily. They could not hold public office or a public service job. They were discriminated against in the allocation of public housing. Electoral boundaries were “gerrymandered” – drawn in such a way as to reduce the strength of the Catholic vote.
Not hard to see why they revolted against such blatant discrimination.
Various republican militias formed with the aim of bringing about a united Ireland ruled from Dublin. On the other side similar “loyalist” paramilitary units grew and war began.
Finally it evolved into mindless tit-for-tat revenge attacks. Brutish, uncompromising extremists on each side called the shots. Literally.
A wall from the netherworld of nightmares
The physical results of the conflict are everywhere to be seen, in particular the “Peace Wall” that divided the two sides. A nightmarish construction that runs for 30 kms, up to 6 metres high, broken by a series of gates where armed British troops maintained checkpoints.
The so-called “Peace Wall” that divides Catholic areas from Protestant areas in Belfast.
Even today it is an uneasy peace and the gates are still manned and close each night at 6pm. The Troubles might be over but the divisions remain, both political and physical.
But at least it is a peace of sorts. The two sides are gradually learning to co-exist without the need for killing.
But not always.
While we were there a young journalist, Lyra McKee, was shot at a demonstration in Derry by the rebel New IRA, basically a bunch of brainless yobbos who still seek to wage war.
The shooting had entirely the opposite effect to what the triggerman would have wanted.
It brought people together. We watched a vigil in front of Belfast’s Town Hall as thousands of Catholics, Protestants and others stood silently shoulder to shoulder to say “This is not us”.
#not in our name
In Derry, where republican sympathies are still strong, the message was the same.
The British called the city Londonderry. The Irish republicans called it Derry.
There’s a famous sign on a wall “You are now entering Free Derry” that makes a plain statement about their political sympathies.
The day after that shooting even the Derry republicans signalled their disgust at what had happened. Scrawled on the sign was the message ”#not in our name” and “R.I.P. Lyra”.
While that sentiment prevails and – with care nurture – grows, there is hope for a lasting peace in the North.
Take a black cab taxi tour
We took a Black Cab tour of the Shankhill and Falls Rd areas. Mick, our Catholic driver, tried very hard to be neutral in his commentary but his sympathies were clear to see. Not that it mattered. We got a very personal insight into the history of the conflict.
You will get to see the now famous street art – murals that reflect the history and community values of the area. There are about 300 of them.
Probably the most famous of them is the Bobby Sands memorial on the side wall of the Sinn Feinn office. He was the leader of the hunger strikers who, in 1981, starved themselves to death as a protest in the notorious H Block of The Maze, the prison used to house political prisoners.
I would recommend a taxi tour as the best way to see the area. Even today it has been suggested that going into the wrong area in a car with the wrong sort of number plates can result in a potentially dangerous confrontation. Not fatal these days, but ugly.
If you are planning to visit Northern Ireland’s northernmost sights then planning must, indeed, be your byword because things are not as simple as they seem.
The Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede, and the Dark Hedges are popular visitor attractions but there are traps for the beginner or the unorganised.
The Dark Hedges
If you want to capture one of those iconic images – dark, brooding, almost malevolent – then good luck with that. There will be just you and several hundred of your closest touring friends on the tree-shrouded road.
So this is the sort of shot you want, right?
The reality of a visit to the Dark Hedges
Here’s what you’ll actually get
The problem is Game of Thrones. It was shown as the Kingroad for just 10seconds but that’s enough to flood this ancient avenue with hordes of GoT fans.
The King’s Road scene from Game of Thrones
So many now visit the location that the local authority had to close the road. Not that this stops the Entitled Ones – those who don’t think the rules apply to them – from parking on the road.
The trees were planted 200 years ago by the local landowners, the Stuart family and were intended as a landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House.
Shown in Season 2, Episode 1: The North Remembers – On the King’s Road, Arya Stark has escaped from King’s Landing, disguised as a boy. She is with Yoren, Gendry, Hot Pie and others who are to join the Night’s Watch, in a cart, traveling north on the Kingsroad.
So what to do?
If you are really serious about getting That Shot you are best to book into the nearby hotel, ask for an early morning call to get up at dawn before the hordes get there.
You can only park legally in the hotel grounds for which there is a modest 2 Euro charge. It’s about a 7 to 8 minute walk through the woods to the road itself.
Some of the trees in the wooded walk are also ancient and looked for all the world like Ents from Lord Of The Rings, about to march off to fight Saruman, the White Wizard.
This is the rope suspension bridge that connects the mainland to a small island called Carrick-a-Rede. The island was used for centuries by salmon fishermen because it was the best place to catch the migratory fish in season. After the fish’s migratory patterns changed, along with over-fishing, the age of fishermen on the island came to an end in 2002. Today, their legacy is an isolated, whitewashed cottage perched on Carrick: the very definition of a precarious location.
The place is now so popular that numbers crossing the bridge, strung precariously 30 metres above the ocean, have to be controlled. Which means you must book your crossing. So don’t you be just rollin’ up there expecting to make the crossing. You will be allowed to climb up to the bridge site but not cross it.
Speaking of the climb it is over a kilometre of serious climbing. Perhaps this photo gives you a hint as to the arduous nature of the “walk”.
But it is worth it!
Crossing the rope bridge to Carrick-a-Rede
As you can see the day we were there there wasn’t a a lot of scenery to be seen.
This is the way the salmon fishermen launched their boat.
First piece of advice: Pay to go through. No, no . . . you don’t have to. You can walk down there for free but for the fairly modest entrance fee you get parking at the door. Incidentally, park in the wrong place on the roadside “free” parking and the ticket could cost you a lot more than entrance to the whole experience.
You will also get one of the excellent audio guides. Much recommended to understand how this remarkable geological feature was formed.
Let me let you into a secret: Finn McCool, the giant, really didn’t build it.
“No!”, do I hear a shocked you exclaim.
It’s formation 60 million years ago is, in fact, one of the curiosities of the natural world. 40,000 near-perfect hexagonal pillars make up one of Ireland most amazing visitor experiences. Again, there will be squillions of other people there but somehow it doesn’t detract from the experience.
Tip for young players: Walk the 1km down to the causeway, but catch the bus back. It’s otherwise a heck of a climb.
Curiosity. From here if you look north you can see the The South, and later if you go to Malin’s Head, the northernmost point in Ireland, by looking south you’ll see The North. The clue is in the capital letters. Looking north you’ll see County Donegal which is a part of the Irish Republic. And similarly looking south you look into Northern Ireland
On the first day of a 14 day road trip around the Emerald Isle, Ireland, and it has been one of the most rewarding travel days I have spent . . . and that’s a big claim.
Why? Because I visited two of the most important, yet relatively little known, historic sites. The Battle of the Boyne and Newgrange.
Why is the battle at Boyne so important? Had it gone the other way you would, very likely, be reading this in French.
And Newgrange? A vast construction built over 5000 years ago, which makes it older than Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The Battle of the Boyne
This was a scrap for the very soul of Ireland and even for Europe, fought between William of Orange and James II.
King Billy, as he is often called in Northern Ireland, had wrested the British crown from James two years before.
James, a Catholic, rallied forces from Louis XIV of France, along with support from Irish Catholics. William was a Dutch Protestant, thus at the first level it was a sectarian battle between rival religions.
James saw it as a way to reclaim his crown by the backdoor – win Ireland as a base from which to bring war to Protestant Britain.
The Battle of the Boyne Visitors’ Centre
Cannon from the battle.
Apple blossoms in the walled garden at the battle site
But at a wider perspective it was also an important battle in the War of the Grand Alliance in which the major European powers, with the backing of Pope Alexander VIII, sought to subdue France, at the time clearly the most powerful nation in Europe.
Had James won the battle it would have had a knock-on effect that could have seen France become the overlord of all Europe.
Instead, William’s forces, by virtue of superior numbers and poor Jacobite generalship, took the day.
James fled to France and though the war went on for a few more months with confrontations in other parts of Ireland, essentially it was all over for Jimmy boy and his French mates. The balance of power on the Continent was maintained.
The Telegraph newspaper has a very good article on the Battle of the Boyne, Read it here.
This is one of the most awe-inspiring edifices I have ever had the privilege to see – and yes, I use that term advisedly, for it is a privilege.
We know nothing of the builders except that they were farmers. Being Neolithic they had no metal equipment. They didn’t have the advanced technology of the wheel. What use a wheel in boggy Ireland?
Yet they moved enormous amounts of rock, including huge boulders, anything up to 70km to build a round “mountain” entirely of stone 83m in diameter, 13.5m high covering an area of about an acre.
It is not, you have to understand, a stone wall filled with a lot of earth. It is entirely made of rocks, so cleverly laid that despite 5000 years in the Irish weather it remains totally waterproof inside.
A tunnel leads to a central chamber where, it is theorised, the ashes of the dead were deposited. An alternative view is that it was a place of worship, a cathedral that in its time and available technology rivals any of the great churches of the world.
If you ever do a road trip in Ireland – which I heartily recommend – you must put these two sites on or near the top of the must-see list.
They are part of a the Bru na Boinne, the area within the bend of the River Boyne which contains not just one of the world’s most important prehistoric buildings, but three large “tumuli” and 37 smaller constructions as well as the Battle of the Boyne site.
It’s about 40km north of Dublin, about 30 minutes’ drive up the M1.