Saturday, 29 July 2017

Short summer breaks

As the peak of the summer holiday season arrives in August, it’s opportune to share the joy of short breaks closer to home based on two trips in recent weeks.   
The first journey necessitated flights to England; the second involved a drive by car across the Irish border.

The east of England

At the end of last month, we visited our youngest daughter Jennifer, her husband Sam and their son Max in Essex.  They live in the historic market town of Saffron Walden.  Having experienced its many delights previously, we took our son-in-law’s advice and ventured eastwards on this occasion.  
Following an afternoon visit to Cambridge we set off.  Our destination was East Anglia, more specifically the coastal town of Southwold.

On the previous weekend with my wife making her way to Birmingham to watch a pre-Wimbledon tennis tournament (and travelling on to Saffron Walden a week later), I was tantalised and severely tempted by photographs as Jennifer Sam and Max relaxed on Southwold’s exquisite beach. 


It probably helped that the air temperature was a sweltering 30+ degrees centigrade.

There was only one logical course of action.  After observing that the weather was set fair for the coming weekend, a decision was rapidly made to fly over at the end of the week and meet up with my wife and Jennifer in the tropical south-east.

This turned out to be a wise choice because the pleasing climate allowed us to capitalise on the resort’s outdoor opportunities.   

Sandcastles were built, 

we explored the town’s uniquely well-preserved pier replete with all manner of Victorian inspired eccentric amusements


and we ate superb fresh fish in waterfront restaurants.

On our second day, I had time to test the waters with a sea swim.  Normally I wouldn't consider swimming in the sea until late August or September but this turned out to be an invigorating personal highlight of our short getaway in Southwold.  The benign water temperature enabled me to splash and thrash about for surprisingly longer than the 60 second dip I had anticipated beforehand.

We also visited the area’s best known attraction, Adnam’s.  Best known for its beers, this is a company which also also directly retails a diverse range of its own drinks and even kitchenware in very impressive modern premises.  Its ambient outdoor restaurant appealed the most to us.

Having made the decision to visit Suffolk’s east coast at such short notice, finding accommodation for a group of four adults and a toddler took a little more time to arrange.  
In the end, fortunately, we were delighted to find a place to stay about twenty minutes inland[i].  Glamping is the neologism.

Our accommodation for two nights was based on an isolated rural farmstead in the scenic Waveney Valley.  It offered us a genuine Mongolian yurt 

together with a conventional annexe (to the main farmhouse) which supplied all of the facilities we needed to be self-catering.
That said, the only meal we prepared was breakfast on both days.

A relaxing and tranquil rural idyll.

Sam’s eloquent testimonial summed up our thoughts:-

“Celeste and Sergei were wonderful and welcoming hosts. We were a family of 5, grandparents, parents and a three year old. The Yurt and the annexe were clean and very comfortable, our three year old loved the 'adventure' and sleeping in the big tent. Local beer in the fridge, milk, eggs from the farm and a range of supplies for breakfast were very much appreciated.  The garden is beautiful and walking around the farm is a pleasure.  The goats and numerous chickens were friendly and another great addition for our son.  Would return without hesitation.”

The west of Ireland

Two weeks later accompanied by Jennifer’s older sister, Deirdre and her two daughters (who live in the magnificent Scottish Highlands), we drove the 170 mile journey from Belfast to Ballina in County Mayo.  
Based on a friend’s recommendation, we booked a self-catering lakeside lodge which is part of a hotel[ii] two miles south of the town.

Situated in the successfully-marketed Wild Atlantic Way which includes Ireland’s west coast, Mount Falcon itself is set in 100 acres of its own estate parkland.  Appropriately, it offers displays of falconry, they also have hawks, and visitors can engage in rural sports including clay pigeon shooting and archery.
A peregrine falcon with handler

A harris hawk sitting on a neighbour's car

But what a tranquil location, both by day and by night - in spite of all of the activity.  
If anybody out there wants to escape to a peaceful place where you will be well fed either to write a book or to compose a symphony, this estate would be an inspirational choice.

On the first of our three evenings, I was walking past the lake opposite our lodge and heard what sounded like someone dropping a stone into the water.  I looked around and dispensed with that theory, there being nobody else nearby.  Then I heard the same sound again.  Looking at the lake, I spotted a fish leaping straight up to catch an insect.  What a sight.  Our gorgeous little lake is full of trout.

Next morning I ventured out for a short bike ride.  On the 6 mile stretch of road from the hotel to Foxford (with its woollen mills), I noticed several signs for fisheries, a larger sign advertising the Ballina Salmon Festival starting the week after our departure, and places to eat and drink like the Mayfly Inn.  There is a theme here.   
Later that day, my wife told me that she had spotted a flier describing Ballina as the salmon capital of Ireland.
Mayo salmon on the Mount Falcon menu

Ballina, Foxford and Mount Falcon are situated on the River Moy.  The ardent fisherman, legendary English footballer and former manager of the Ireland football team, Jack Charlton, was so impressed with Ballina that he bought a house there.  Its back garden faced the River Moy.

For the purposes of keeping our two grandchildren amused, the hotel’s spacious grounds with leaping trout and its other wildlife, especially ducks, were perfect for some nature study especially when weather conditions were so favourable.   

In addition there was a kids club in the morning, after which we would bring them to the hotel’s swimming pool before heading off into Ballina for lunch.

Just like our earlier visit to East Anglia, the beach was the best alternative attraction.  It must be at least fifteen years ago since Marie and I last visited the nearby County Sligo town of Enniscrone.   
This was the opportunity to introduce new members of our family to its sand dunes and beach with loads of sea swimmers.  Candy floss and an arcade of amusements were predictably popular with our two young visitors.

The abiding memory I took away from that earlier visit was attending the Hot Seaweed Baths.  This Edwardian institution has been operated by the same family for over 100 years[iii].   
On this return trip, I was delighted to see that it is still as popular as ever.

Ballina’s charm was well diagnosed by my daughter who knows a bit about retail therapy.  Almost in the planning parlance that her father might use about town centre health checks, she astutely observed that it has a reasonable number of national multiples, but that these are well outnumbered by local businesses.  
Their presence adds an emphatic local accent and individuality to Ballina’s shopping offer.

On a pleasant summer’s day where else would you want to be – apart from Enniscrone’s seaweed baths or maybe its beach - or Southwold’s golden sands. 

The west of Ireland and the east of England, a broad horizon, perfect for short breaks.   
Both have beauty in spades.

Lakeside lodges Mount Falcon Ballina
Beach huts in Southwold

©Michael McSorley 2017