Travel Jottings

Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.

A School Trip to St. Malo

St. Malo, Brittany, France

When I started writing these words, I contended that I never was one to keep a diary until I realised that it was something that I did for a part of my youth. The self-discipline to stick to the task did not hold like that of my late father did until age and infirmity overtook him. Whenever I summon the energy and set aside the required time, entries on this website can fulfil the same purpose.

To build these, photos normally help to pull thoughts together because they coalesce recollections from memory about them. That we are in an age of digital photography helps with its automation of image metadata recording so you get the date and time when the photo was captured. With the right kit, you even can track down the location and the lack of that causes me to sometimes wonder what exactly I have recorded in a photo. Without the attention to detail that involves recording such things in a notebook, photographic slides or prints from when film photography reigned supreme just cannot provide the same kind of information.

These themes of record and recollection are brought to mind when I cast my mind back to a trip to France during my time at secondary school. This was before I moved from Ireland to Britain during my university years and highlights the realisation that we all go through different stages of life with the transition from one to another looking perhaps unremarkable at the time yet becoming more defined a few years later. All these stages mount up over time and do one's memory little in the way of favours.

Along with the passage of time, that may explain why my recollections of that school trip are faded like an old photographic print. It does not help that there are no photos to jog the memory (any photos that you see here come from other sources) either since my interest in photography only starting taking baby steps a few years later. Thus, what I am writing here comes from the scraps that remain in my head from that first ever overseas excursion from the country of my birth.

A More Analogue Time

Anyone that has seen the movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will be struck by how analogue everything looks since it was set in the 1970's, a decade of which many have not so fond memories. Still, there was a certain something about electronic devices from that time and the allure of SLR cameras was to remain with me until I could afford to buy one in the early years of the century. During my schooldays, some students bought them second-hand and I always though it a situation above my station at the time. Somehow, the appearance of a Polaroid camera that a visitor to our house had never had the same attraction, as wondrous as instantly developing photos should have been.

Photography was not a pressing interest in our family though there were some inexpensive compact cameras about with my brother having one that used 126 film that he took on a school trip to France and Spain. Others were more inclined to seize up due to lack of use, especially any with motor drives. Even when cameras were put into use, photographic composition was very hit and miss with my aunt using a camera and hardly taking note of what was in the viewfinder at all! My brother was stunned at her vantage point when he took charge of the camera.

Aside from that, our world hardly was a digital one. Apart from a weekly family quiz show on Irish television, the rise of home computing that was taking place in the U.K. scarcely hit our rural Irish household until I got a Commodore 64 late in its product lifetime. We even had to make do with a manual telephone exchange until 1986 so we were well behind the rest of the Western world. It was a world where most electronic devices did only a single job and my father spent evenings photocopying books with a machine whose operation would cause incredulity nowadays.

Following in Someone's Wake

There have been technological stirrings in 1989 that offered a path towards where we find ourselves today, they were hidden from me then. For some reason, I felt that I was following in my brother's wake and did not rise to his heights. That was to continue until I reached university and started to explore the world in a manner of my own that brought achievements that are mine alone.

A school trip during the summer of 1989 possibly should have felt like for me too but for the fact that his took him to France and Spain. In a way my first overseas excursion was again following in his wake but this one was to be based in Saint Malo in Brittany and not touring like his group did. Also, I made no photos on mine so he again did something that I didn't. However, there were things that I did that were unique for me and that curiously is how I have gone about things since then. Maybe my style was unique and just as good as his though I got the feeling that my father preferred his older son and it has taken time to get beyond that.

Still, my father did get to supporting my life choices and that is how I came to gain degrees from University College, Cork and the University of Edinburgh. My having a part to play in medical progress also was a source of pride to the man too. In the same way, he supported the idea of going to France with the intention of improving spoken French and my mother made well sure that I had what I needed for when I was there. If an exchange trip was what was in order, I wonder whether that would have happened as easily. My parents may have been hospitable people but this may have seemed a bit uppish to them.

Getting to and from France

1989 was one of those sunnier Irish summers and a complete contrast to the washouts of 1985 and 1986 when harvesting of fodder for the wintertime became a huge challenge with all the rain that fell and flooded many places. There was a damper blip at the end of July before the sun returned again and it was on a grey Saturday morning that my father took me to the school where a minibus waited to convey us on our way.

From those days, I seem to recall that fifteen folk could be conveyed in the space that now only can be used to carry eight and safety belts only were installed on the front seats. Our Talbot Express, essentially a Fiat Ducato with another badge, had two bench seats facing each other in the back on which six could sit in total. Though I remember only one, there must have been two bench seats in the middle that carried around six with two or three carried in the front, including the driver. What has not been forgotten is that luggage space was in short supply so mothers needed to intervene so that everything got loaded. Much had to go underneath seats because that was all that we had.

Once all was loaded, we are on our way under unchangingly grey skies. With boredom, someone decided to play the comedian by aping Billy Connolly's Scottish drawl and imitating the punchline from advertising for then newly launched McVitie's Hobnobs. Thankfully, there was a break from all that in Waterford before we continued on our way again and reached Rosslare in good time. Ireland's sunny south-east lived up to its other name and the sun was out as we left Ireland's shores.

The overnight trip on the ferry form Rosslare to Cherbourg was another new experience for my younger self. Rows of slot machines that I never used and card games in the cafeteria remain in my mind along with seeing the Wexford coast fade into view as we sailed away. The approach to France had two of us on the wrong side of the boat so we nearly missed seeing Cherbourg before we needed to go to the minibus. Passports needed to be shown too and I wonder if that still is the way now for Ireland remains outside the Schengen area.

The return journey has escaped my recollection and that may be because the lack of novelty left it vulnerable to erasure. Both sets of memories could merge too since the lengthy crossings were smooth and that cannot be assumed given how long you are away from land on this route.

Somewhere to Stay

On the way to Saint Malo from Cherbourg, there were two stops with one of these allowing a visit to a patisserie where an opportunity for speaking French to locals needed taking if we were get something for our lunch. Our early ferry arrival time meant that we got to the youth hostel where we were staying well before dinner time.

Until I began to summon these thoughts together, the name Patrick Varangot Centre was utterly lost to me. It has taken photos from its website and the powers of Google's Streetview to convince myself that this was where we stayed. The recalled proximity of a beach, a supermarket and promenade leading towards Saint Malo's walled town all came together when I got to looking at online maps.

Even now, I cannot called adventurous in my eating preferences so evening meals in Saint Malo presented me with something of a challenge. The first one of the stay remains in my memory and not for the best reasons. Others fared better and I made up my mind to go with French-dressed lettuce too. Breakfast was always pain au chocolat so that hardly troubled me and I have a faded image of the hatch from which we were served in my mind's eye too. A nearby supermarket supplied midday lunches and there may have need to use our French there too. That was when I developed a weakness for freshly baked baguettes that never left me.

The Purpose of the Exercise

The idea behind the trip may have been improving our spoken French, I now wonder if that was going to work as intended since the path of least resistance involved speaking English among ourselves! It is not for nothing that many go on exchange trips to France during their school years since such an experience would force anyone out of their comfort zone. Being immersed in French family life offers no way out of make a go of their language.

To be fair, we did have morning classes with a native French teacher from Monday to Friday while we were there. Memories of those include being asked what French music we knew and an embarrassing gender mishap, an easy thing to commit in a language where everything has a gender.

Nevertheless, something must have rubbed off on me for a recent trip to Switzerland saw me being a little less lost around Geneva and the French speaking part of the country. If only I was not so nervous about doing so, I would have managed to speak the language more fluently since articles in a morning free newspaper remained intelligible to me. Maybe more practice would help to resuscitate things.

Other Activities

With our morning classes out of the way, there was ample free time for exploring where we were and attending to such needs as sorting out a midday lunch or cashing in traveller's cheques, another exercise that needed our grasp of French. These days, I would depend on local cash machines using the services of Visa or Mastercard but that was not the preferred case then when the French Franc still held sway.

Somehow, I seem to fill the first evening with a swim in the sea and a walk into the walled part of Saint Malo. It could be that my memory is playing tricks on me because there was a need to unpack the minibus too. After all, recollections can merge after a distance of many years…

Being spoilt by an indoor heated swimming pool (typically around 28°C), swimming even in seas warmed by the Gulf Stream in the height of summer still felt a little chilly at 20 to 21°C and there was the salty taste of sea water too. The contrast dulled my then usual enthusiasm for swimming though it still was a good thing to go doing. Swimming in seas on the west coast of Ireland would need you to be more hardy so I am not grumbling.

Air temperatures did reach around 30°C so light clothing was a must as was sunscreen to cut down on sunburn in the strong sunshine. Fair Irish skin and tanning don't often coincide even if another lad did have designs on such a thing and I do not remember him to be swarthy. Others took advantage of the nearby beach too with one rogue seeking out nudist bathers as if other attractions were not enough; the same character also tried his hand at insulting Germans and scaling a flag pole later in the trip. My own legs caught the sun so I gave up on shorts and I still stick with long trousers now.

Two walks along the promenade into Saint Malo's walled town remain in my memory. The first of these was late in the day and it was a slightly eerie experience walking the streets within those walls and light failing and there was no danger. Later on, I heard that the place had been damaged during Word War II and needed rebuilding. That had me wondering if that explained how I felt but I reckon that I was not used to such places because of my country upbringing. Later on, I pottered in there in the middle of the day and explored it a little more and without any spookiness about the place at all.

If this was now, I would be strolling all around in preference to spending time on the beach to savour every nook and cranny. A camera would come too and would not sit idle. Then, I was more timid and this was my first time away from Ireland so the ensuing years have changed a lot. For one thing, I am not a beach person.

Mont Saint Michel, Brittany, France

There was at least one afternoon excursion in the minibus too. That took us to Mont Saint Michel where we went right to the church at the top if my mind is not fooling me. As attractive as a spot that it is, we were warned about souvenir prices so I contented myself with a pen. Of course, keeping track of currency exchange rates too would have been a necessity since even the ready reckoner of around nine French Francs to the Irish pound made mental arithmetic trickier. Another piece of advice was that photography in the church was not encouraged and that had no effect on my actions anyway. There was a visit to a hypermarket and our driver needed sheets and I did not know the word for them, "draps" (a word I found later), so I was not as much use as should have been the case.

Mont Orgueil Castle, Gorey, Jersey

There was also a escape to Jersey by ferry. This was a day trip and one that involved an encounter with passport control with someone getting bored and acting up without consequences. A scarf was used in the exploit with the offender being told to remove it. Otherwise, it was a simple break where English was spoken and we ended up in a branch of Marks and Spencer at one point. Apart from pottering about Saint Helier in the sun, two of us ventured inland where I fancied seeing Jersey cows on the island that gave the breed their name.

That island visit was the high point in our weekend escapades with such designs as a train journey to and from Paris on the TGV never coming to pass. Another idea was to visit the beaches where the Allies landed on D-Day during World War II and that was another that failed to get off the drawing board. We also got to see the pretty town of Dinard of a Saturday morning and the image of needing to do weekend ironing has stayed with through the years. Maybe, it was later that day.

We hung around the hostel too and I recall guitar-accompanied singsongs in front of where we were staying. Though I played it safe, others chatted with folk of different nationalities. Incidents were rare anyway so all ended well.

A Return?

One thing that writing this piece has popped into my head is the possibility of a visit to the Channel Islands. Certainly, there is more walking to be had on Jersey and Guernsey has its share too. In addition, Alderney, Sark and Herm offer chances for further island hopping. Then, there is the prospect of a day trip to Saint Malo that reverses what we did all those years ago. Hill and mountain landscapes may be a bigger lure for me these times but the chance for some coastal walking and urban exploration is not one that I reject either. This is one for the ideas shelf.