Journeys imply place: visiting a specific location; experiencing different landscapes; discovering a new perspective. But journeys are also about people. During our trip, we avoided large hotel chains and opted to stay at Bed and Breakfasts or Airbnbs and as a result met several fascinating characters.
After coming off the M5 and, given Google Maps, enduring the uncertainty of England’s narrow country lanes, we were eager to see our first Bed and Breakfast, a classic Georgian home near Exeter in Devon.
It had two storeys, a large dining room and a parlour, all decorated in heavy, late Victorian age-thickened furniture and densely woven drapes in glowering reds and greens. I don’t have a green thumb, but I am sure there was an aspidistra standing in the corner of the parlour. We arrived hungry, tired and in need of somewhere to dine but our hostess was nowhere to be seen. We stood in the wide hall and coughed loudly, opened and shut the unlocked front door several times and eventually called out, to no avail. We could hear the sound of a television coming from somewhere but could not identify which direction. Eventually, after our calls became louder, a door opened and the television’s babble momentarily flooded the hall above us. A male voice called, ‘Coming,’ and we looked towards the stairs to see a thin man with collar length, wispy hair plastered to his scalp and a welcoming smile punctuated by uneven, and in a couple of cases broken, teeth. His manners and upper-class speech were, however, impeccable. He took a piece of our luggage in each hand and ascended the steep staircase saying as he did so that the lady of the house would be back soon. He swung open the door to a room swathed in primrose coloured wallpaper with sheer pink curtains filtering the afternoon sun. We deposited our luggage, which had taken on a pink glow, and he showed us the powder blue and white shared bathroom, handed us the key and told us to make ourselves at home.
Our hostess appeared later and carefully dropped into the conversation that the man who greeted us was not her husband, only the lodger. We met our hostesses’ husband a day later when we almost let their dogs out on to the busy road and only just avoided a doggy tragedy. Our hostess, however, was unfazed; she was a cheerful, hard-working no-nonsense woman who ran several businesses and admitted to us the day before we left that if we were looking for accommodation akin to ‘Fawlty Towers‘ we’d come to the right place. In many ways, it was a little chaotic but we found everyone there, including the lodger, charming and helpful.
In County Clare, Ireland, a conversation with another landlady went amusingly wrong. The decor on this occasion was more muted, but the welcome just as warm. One morning at breakfast I spotted a large battery charging in the corner and commented on how impressed I was with the number of electric powered cars we’d seen in the UK and Ireland. I also described the public electric vehicle (EV) charge points we saw at the Motorway Service Areas (MSA) in England and that we needed more of them in Australia. Our hostess, a competent, bustling woman with an engaging Irish accent, looked a little confused, but the conversation continued amicably. It was only later when I was going back over our discussion that I realised it was not her car that was electric, but her golf cart (which I call a golf buggy), and certainly not something you’d drive along the M5 to have recharged.
In terms of the rich and famous, we had only one encounter, though sadly not with the real person. At yet another essential ‘comfort’ stop, this time while driving between Dublin and Limerick, we discovered an MSA named after the 44th President of the United States. The Barack Obama Plaza contained a petrol station, food court, toilets and a visitor centre detailing information about Obama’s Irish connections. We didn’t have time to visit the visitor centre or take our photos with the life-size cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the main hall but we were chuffed with finding this little bit of America in the middle of Ireland.
Finally, my favourite ‘character’ of the entire trip was another hostess in Ireland, this time in Galway. I promised to keep her identity a secret so I’ll call her ‘Kathleen’ and like all our hosts she was warm, friendly and helpful. She also had an energy and attitude I immediately warmed to. An hour after meeting her I felt like we’d been friends for years. On the first morning after arriving she described the easiest walking route from her home to the centre of Galway and wished us well.
We spent the day visiting several of Galway’s famous Celtic jewellers, locating the best pub for a traditional Irish lunch and Guinness, watching the local buskers, searching for an art gallery that, sadly, wasn’t open, locating Nora Barnacle’s home and unexpectedly coming across Charley Byrnes’ Bookshop, heaven for any bibliophile.
After a long day, we trudged back to our lodgings and were halfway there when we both heard a loud, vaguely familiar voice. We looked up to see a woman in a pink puffer jacket holding, with her right hand, her mobile phone to her left ear and steering her bicycle with her left hand. She was followed by a string of cars, reduced to travelling at her lazy speed. It was Kathleen, happily oblivious to the traffic trailing in her wake. When I later described the scene to her she smiled and said she had no idea who’d do such a thing. I agreed, promised I’d not tell her husband and asked if I could please share the tale as long as I never revealed her identity; and I never will. Kathleen, may your rides through Galway remain safe and true and thank you for making our stay the delight that it was. You and others like you helped me to understand that where place and character meet, memories and stories are made.