ARoundWithRog - Northern Ireland
Ring, ring, ring ring the bell sounded. On it went, nearer, then further and then nearer again. Please let it not be a group of well oiled travellers wreaking havoc with others' sleeping patterns. I jumped from my bunk in what appeared to be the very middle of the night and whipped the door open, ready to deliver a piece of my mind to the offfender who had dared to disturb our peace. . . . . . . . . but fortunately for them, they were not visible. In fact, it turned out to be fortunate for me as the announcement that followed from the bridge confirmed that this was the official wake up call, even though it was shortly after 5am and we were not due to arrive until 6.30. Do they not appreciate that it does not take people 90 minutes to rise and vacate their cabins ready for arrival in Belfast. This had to be a rouse to sell breakfasts. . . . but it would be lost on us, as this was most definitely still the middle of the night!
As we had been late arriving in Birkenhead, we had not had a chance to take photographs of the bike with the ship as requested by Norfolkline who had donated our passage. So, I rode the bike up onto the jetty side ready to take some photographs of the bike with Norfolkline's livery, but Ana nor Max were anywhere to be seen. A quick phone call established that she had a flat battery. Not fun, given that the battery in a BMW X3 is to be found in the boot - as you will recall, the boot was loaded full. The ship's crew and Max moved swiftly to ease Ana's pain and embarrassment, with jump start trucks and a helpful manner, while many cars waited for the situation to be resolved. The flat battery was caused by accidentally leaving the parking lights on due to the unusual control that Ana was unfamiliar with. This set the mood for later on as we set off through Belfast with its paramilitary murals complete with political slogans, to find the coast road. It was the most beautiful and clear morning, so Ana and Max were going to follow me as the limits of their GPS systems didn't include Northern Ireland. But before long, the morning mist descended and created the pea soup so conducive to following in convoy. I waited, but to no avail. I called Max, who agreed to meet at Glenarm. Ana's phone was off. I needed to stop to adjust something on the bike and pulled into a lay-by. Ana appeared out of the murk and delivered a tirade of 'I'm not enjoying this, I didn't want to come, then you leave me without making sure that I am following' etc etc. It is all to do with getting out of bed at 5 in the morning, trust me, as this was not like her at all. Thankfully, I managed to calm the situation without quite biting my tongue off in the process, but progess was now to be under Ana's rules!! She has mysteriously managed to get her GPS working and programmed in the next destination and would proceed in a northerly direction at her own pace.
Well, what a relief that I could now enjoy some of the most beautiful coastal scenery anywhere. Also to enjoy it on the bike and at a pace that was more engaging. It appears that despite some roads being very narrow in these parts, there is nothing such as a single track road, as whatever the width, it is still adorned with the broken white line down the middle - around bends and over blind crests, with views down the cliffs to the sea below. We met up again in Ballycastle and over breakfast formulated the plan for the rest of the day.
As I am 6'8'' tall and officially a giant, Giant's Causeway was a must visit place on the way to Royal Portrush Golf Club. All I can say is that despite only having 40 minutes from arrival to departure to take in this natural wonder, every minute spent there was fantastic. Right on the seashore with the waves crashing onto age old piles of basalt columns that have naturally formed into their hexagonal shapes, bordered and backed by an unspoilt natural amphitheatre of the most enormous proportions, it is simply magical. Surely, this one of so many places, is testament to the National Trust who ensure that such places remain open and available for all to enjoy.
It did mean that I only had 20 minutes to get ready to play golf, but with the exception of a rather unsightly caravan park visible from a good number of the holes at Portrush, this is links golf at its best. Dunes bordering the long sandy beach, the ever present wind, the maram grass ready to engulf the ball from any wayward shot and sometimes the only clue on where to aim being a triangular white painted stone inserted into the side of a prominent sand dune visible from the teeing ground. Dermot and Patrick joined Max and I for this wonderful round; Dermot had played it on a number of previous occasions and so provided us with the necessary clues on where we should aim. Round over, there was no time to hang around. Patrick needed to rush back to the airport so that he would catch a flight that would reunite him with his car by getting him to the right London Airport and Max I had to chase across Northern Ireland to Newcastle County Down, for a dinner appointment with Professor Terry Lappin, a friend of his and Ana.
Professor Lappin had been contacted by Leukaemia Research Fund to try to support the event, as at one point, I was struggling to sell the golf games in Northern Ireland. He had wanted to take us for a tour though the Queens University Belfast Cancer Research facility that he headed up, but such was the tight schedule, this could not be accommodated. The research unit was a £23 million UK government grant funded facility to create a regional centre of excellence in this challenging field of research. Instead, he kindly invited us all out to dinner at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle County Down. Here we learnt that he had received a £168,000 grant from Leukaemia Research to fund some research he had been wanting to carry out in the field of the blood cancers. He felt that it was his duty to support and meet us as without fundraisers, all sorts of projects would not proceed. We also learnt that he insists that all of his research scientists go out on fundraising coffee mornings on at least two occasions per year, to understand how much effort is involved in raising each £10. £10,000 is what it costs to keep one scientist in reseach materials per annum.
Well fed by the Professor and rested in the room which had been kindly donated at the same hotel by the owners, Hastings Hotels, I set out to the Royal County Down Golf Club next door. As usual, I parked my bike in as prominent a position as I thought I could get away with. This time, however, in the nicest possible way, I was asked to move it to a more suitable location. I was then 'interviewed' by the club secretary, James Laidler. He was dressed in a suit, which seemed unusual, until I found out that he had worked previously in the banking industry for many years! He had served the European Tour as a client and ended up getting this job partly by being 'in the know'. His godfather had, by some considerable coincidence also lived a few houses along from me, in the same road in High Wycombe, so he knew the area well.
Max and I set out to tame this masterpiece of a golf club, which intimidates and rewards, punishes and delights at every turn. The scenic majesty is probably unrivalled in UK links golf. It has the ancient rounded Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop, the beach and sea at its edge with all the problems a golf course can throw at those who play it - gorse, bracken, maram grass and even some heather thrown in for good measure. Never had I seen the coarse maram grass allowed to grow unchecked on the lips of the bunkers, so that they appeared like artificial eyelashes painted beige, topping the bunkers to complete the impression of being big wide seductive eyes, ready to welcome the curious. For those who fell into their trap, they would know that these were the stares of the femmes fatales of the golf world. The ubiquitous wind would add to the complement of difficulties, as well as the greens that seem as quick as those at the Masters in Augusta. They aren't, but it was certainly my first experience of seeing a well struck shot that had almost stopped moving a few yards from the pin, then gather pace and roll off the green through a swale and into the edge of the first cut of rough.
James had joined us on the 18th tee to ask us how we had enjoyed the round and walk us in on the last par five. He casually announced that three good strikes would be needed to reach this par five, needing to avoid 19 bunkers in the process. Fortunately, I rose to the challenge and made par - only the third par on the round, despite having played reasonably well. Unfortunately, James, having seen Max's impressive swing and resulting drive, asked him what was his handicap. Max contrived to lose two balls from that good position and failed to add to his rather poor points total for the round.
After being invited for drinks with James, Max headed south to Dublin while we made our way to the ferry at Larne, to ensure that we would not risk missing our crossing over to Scotland. Late at night, we arrived at the world famous Westin Turnberry Resort Hotel. We received a very traditional Scottish welcome and immediately understood why the American golfing tourist is such a common sight in these parts. Our room had been upgraded to enjoy views out over the links and the sea beyond. No wonder this would be hosting another Open Championship in 2009.
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