The Grand Hibernian

A week or so ago I mentioned that a trip on the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express was still an unchecked item on my bucket list. That set me to browsing through the photos from a train journey we took back in 2016. The Grand Hibernian was a new route inaugurated that year by Belmond – the people who operate the VSOE as well The Royal Scotsman, the Eastern & Orient Express, the Hiram Bingham to Machu Pichu, and the Andean Explorer. Hibernia is the classic Latin name for Ireland and true to its name The Grand Hibernian did a tour of Ireland with an optional side trip to Belfast and Waterford. We choose the five day-four night journey which took us to Cork, Killarney, Galway, West Port and back to Dublin. I booked it in April 2015 when Belmond first announced the service. It was to be my 70th birthday celebration combined with our anniversary – I was ever the optimist.

Our tickets and baggage tags
for our journey on
The Grand Hibernian.
September 13-17, 2016

In their literature Belmond referred to it as being more relaxed than the VSOE and Royal Scotsman experience but still with all the elegance, luxury and first class service of their signature trains. And indeed it was.

The train had the quiet comfort of a country home with hints of Georgian Dublin – muted colours picked up from the tartans of the various counties and warm woods. Everything was included: meals, fine wines and premium liquors, entertainment, and tours. And there were always pleasant surprises: Laurent Perrier champagne for our cruise on the Lakes of Killarny, oysters and Guinness on the platform as we waited for our train to be shunted in at West Port, morning coffee at the manor house at Blarney Castle, a jaunting cart ride through the streets of Killarny, and a champagne lunch at Ashford Castle.

We checked in at The Westbury in Dublin and enjoyed a light lunch before making our way to Heusten Station where we were greeted by the Train Manager and a piper who led us to our train. A welcome glass of champagne was offered, we were introduced to the service crew and escorted to our cabins.

There was one hiccup as the journey begin – what we in the airline called a mechanical. After stowing our suitcases we were asked to meet in the lounge car and advised of the delay. We had been scheduled to have a very elaborate afternoon tea as we journeyed to Cork however the train would have to go off-station for an hour or so. But never fear we would still get our afternoon tea. The piper escorted us through the station – to the wondering eyes of commuters – to The Happy Hooker. Now less you fear for our moral safety a “hooker” is a type of fishing vessel – honest! And the Happy Hooker was the pub/restaurant at the station. There to even more wondering eyes we found the entire tea service from the train had been brought over and set up. We were served our oolong, savouries, sandwiches, scones, and sweets along with more bubbles from the champagne region. When it was time to return the piper led us back to the comfort of the Grand Hibernian. Did I mention this was first class all the way.

The cabin was small but comfortable with twin beds and its own bathroom with shower. It was compact but full provided with fluffy towels and fine toiletries. The sheets were Egyptian cotton and blankets were Irish wool. As much as I enjoy overnight trains I am a light sleeper which can be a problem, however the train remained stationary on a siding each evening so there was no rocking and rolling or click-clack.

Our impromptu afternoon tea had given us an opportunity to meet some of the other passengers and particularly two delightful if slightly eccentric sisters from Dallas, a charming Dutch couple, and several other couples. It also meant that the first evening’s dinner had none of the awkwardness that often accompanies the first night of a cruise or tour.

The dining cars were elegant but relaxed. Yes we all dressed for dinner – ties were not required but jackets were – and the service was impeccable but warm and friendly. The three course meals were prepared in the small galley kitchen and featured regional lamb, fish, poultry and local produce. A range of breakfasts were on offer – continental to full Irish – and in the evening pre-dinner amuse-bouches were constantly being circulated. Only one lunch was served on the train and the others were taken at first class venues at various stops. At lunch in an old (circa 1600) stone quay side house by the Spanish Arch in Galway we had a surprise concert by Nan Tom Teaimin. She is one of the great singers of Sean-nós or “old style” Irish music and it was a privilege to hear her in a private intimate setting.

The lounge car was situated at the rear of the train and the large windows were perfect for watching the green – and I do mean green – countryside go by. Every evening coffee, cognac, and liquors were served in the lounge from the well-stock bar. W e were entertained by a variety of performers: a story teller, a Celtic harpist from Trois Rivières, Quebec, a guitar duo, and the Baileys – a well-known folk trio.

The various stops along the way took us to Blarney Castle, the Lakes of Killarny, the Cliffs of Mohr, Galway town, Ashford Castle, through the lush but often rugged countryside and along the wild Atlantic Coast.

There were so many highlights of that four days but one particular adventure was perhaps the most memorable: the School of Falconry at Ashford Castle. They claim: You will never forget the moment when your hawk first swoops down from a tree and lands on your gloved fist. And they were right!

The Burren – County Clare from the train window September 15th, 2016.

When we left the train in Dublin our next stop was London and then onward to Southampton and a transatlantic journey on the Queen Mary II. After that sort of trip maybe a day on the VSOE would be a bit of a let down??

The word for January 28th is:
Adventure /adˈven(t)SHər,ədˈven(t)SHər/: [1. noun 2. dated verb]
1. An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.
2. To engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.
Middle English: from Old French aventure (noun), aventurer (verb), based on Latin adventurus ‘about to happen’, from advenire ‘arrive’.

Armchair Travel: Sa Pa Redux

Often sharing a memory can send someone else wandering down their own memory lane. This happened yesterday when Andrew Chilvers, my old friend and colleague from Warsaw Business Journal days, read about my visit to Sa Pa in 2006.

Several years before he was Editor of the WBJ (oh grow up!) Andrew was a journalist and spent some time in Vietnam as the country was opening up to the outside world. Though there was some tourism after Unification in 1976 it was on a very small scale and there was very little infrastructure to support travel. However in 1993 a change of visa restrictions opened the country to the outside world. But even three years later in November of 1996 when Andrew made the trip to Sa Pa it was a journey very different from mine ten years later.

This morning Andrew wrote me that:
“When I was in Sa Pa there were only a couple of hardy backpackers there – (it was) still new to tourists. The journey around the mountains was a shocker – in a soviet era jeep on decaying roads with 100 foot drops. I loved it. Lots of ruined French villas on the roof of the world mainly inhabited by Hmong people.”

He has allowed me to share an article he wrote in 2014 recalling that adventure. A left click on the photo of Sa Pa’s art deco church will take you to Andrew’s memory of the Sapa of 1996.

The word for October 16th is:
Memory /ˈmem(ə)rē/: [noun]
1. The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information
2. Something remembered from the past; a recollection.
3. The part of a computer in which data or program instructions can be stored for retrieval.
Middle English: from Old French memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor ‘mindful, remembering’.

Picnic at Orly

I was sad to read in Sunday morning’s Guardian of the death of Nicola Pagett. A wonderful actress who many will remember from her Elizabeth Belamey (Miss Lizzie) in Upstairs Downstairs and the title role in the BBC Anna Karenina. After a series of breakdowns she retired from performing and later wrote a book about her battle with mental illness. I have an indelible memory of her striding on stage at the Queen’s Theatre in an emerald green gown flourishing a riding crop to confront Alec Guinness’s Jonathan Swift in an “entertainment” called Yahoo!

Nicola Pagett as Stella in “Yahoo!” an entertainment based on the life of Jonathan Swift (Alec Guinness) which I saw at the Queen’s Theatre, London in December of 1976. While searching for this photo I recalled her in this emerald green gown and carrying a riding whip.

But I also have a wonderful memory of a few brief hours I spent with her at Orly Airport back in 1974. I was taking an early morning flight from Paris to London and our flight had one of those creeping delays caused by London fog in February. After three hours Air France decided to give us something to eat – yes airlines did that in those days – and offered us baguette sandwiches with a small split of wine or water. Every bench and seat in the hold room was taken and it was going to be awkward to manage. However a very beautiful lady put her fur coat down on the floor, turned to me and the couple I was chatting with and asked “would you like to join me for a picnic?” When we settled in I realized it was Miss Lizzie! So there we sat on a mink coat in a departure room at Orly picnicking, chatting, laughing, and making the best of a bad situation for the next hour or so. She was charming, funny, and gracious. I’ve never enjoyed a flight delay more.

May she rest in the peace that eluded her for much of her life.

The word for March 9th is:
Picnic /ˈpɪknɪk/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.
1.2 A packed meal to be eaten outdoors.
2. The action of consuming a packed meal out of doors.
Mid 18th century (denoting a social event at which each guest contributes a share of the food): from French pique-nique, of unknown origin.
Well it wasn’t outdoors but it was the most memorable picnic I’ve every had.

Remembrance of Things Past

In which I ramble about a trip long past.

Toronto International Airport – 1960s – I began working there in 1966 in the little operations control centre at the end of Finger 5 (red arrow). 

Back in June of 1969 I made my first of many trips to London. I was still very new with the airlines and our passes were not as generous as they were to become. You were given one pass a year to ever widening destinations and after three years I still had not graduated to an overseas pass.  This meant I had to buy a (greatly) reduced standby ticket on another airline out of New York.  The night I was to leave violent thunderstorms cancelled all the flights to JFK so I attempted to sleep in the Teletype room at Toronto International Airport (that was a long time ago) and caught the early morning flight to connect to a PanAm (a really long time ago!) daylight flight. Unfortunately a combination of fatigue, hunger, and fear (yes I’m terrified of flying) led to me passing out as we reached cruising altitude and I came to somewhere over Newfoundland with a very concerned stewardess (a really, really long time ago we called them that) applying a cold compress to my neck. It was the beginning of a very eventful 10 days.

Amongst those events was a stay at a hotel in Bayswater that was rumoured to have been built for Lily Langtry by Edward VII and included a “bijoux” theatre that was the hotel’s bar. It had been turned into a hotel a year or two before and my recollection is of a not overly commodious or commoded single room – my first experience of a bathroom down the hall. And on the way through the warren of hallways and stairs to my chamber I had to pass a room occupied by a permanent resident of the hotel. She was an ancient lady with a mittel-European accent who would open her door a crack as I passed by and mutter dire auguries and bulletins on her fading health. The hall porter said not to mind her she was slightly mad but harmless.

But it wasn’t all fainting and mad women there was also gossip, death, murder, suicide, deceit and chicanery but fortunately most of it on stage.  I was there for theatre and opera.  It was off to the Old Vic for The Way of the World with Geraldine McEwen,  Covent Garden for Georg Solit conducting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Glyndebourne for Werther, Pelleas et Melisande and Cosi Fan Tutte.  A tuxedo was de rigueur for Glyndebourne so a trip was made to Moss Bros in Covent Garden to be tricked out in style.  And for two of the performances the 1430 train to Glynde was caught at Victoria Station.

In his usual wry style Osbert Lancaster captured Glyndebourne of the 1960s – our arrival on a motor bike would have suited his sense of the unusual to a tee.

For the third performance my arrival was a trifle less traditional. I had left the Mad Lady of Bayswater behind and gone to stay with the family of a colleague across the river in Richmond. The son of the family had never been to an opera and we were able to get a last minute ticket for Cosi. Gordon owned a motor bike and thought it would be a lark to drive it down to Lewes on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Our arrival at the opera house was a source of puzzlement to the car park attendant who had no idea where to put us amongst the Bentleys and Jaguars that filled the lot.  Nor as I recall did he know what to charge us.  And the cloak room ladies were equally puzzled when presented with mackintoshes and helmets.  After Mozart, a stroll in the gardens, dinner at the Nether Wallop restaurant we biked back to Richmond with a stop in Brighton to see the pier illuminations and the fireworks.

The programme cover for that visit in 1969 was again Lancaster capturing as only he could the fun of the fair!  The old theatre at Glyndebourne still had a slight village hall air to it.

Being the first trip to London it meant visits to Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Tower of London, Harrod’s (back when it was special and had yet to become a theme park), Fortnum and Mason, the British Museum, the Salisbury Pub in St Martin’s Lane, and Pollack’s Toy Store.

One of Pollock’s reproduction Toy Theatre – The Victoria with characters and scenery for Cinderella found its way into my suitcase.

What?  A toy store?  Well yes but not just any old toy store! Pollack’s was a toy store and museum known for it’s antique juvenile drama – one penny plain and twopence coloured” sets and for reproductions using copper plates dating back to the 1840s.  Given my fascination with toy theatres it can be safely assumed a good deal of what I put in my luggage on the return was from Pollock’s which I wrote about several years ago.  Several complete coloured sets, along with several plain sheets and playbooks,  and a modern (1960s) theatre sheet for the 1928 Drury Lane production of Showboat by an artist called James Hope Williams.  And that theatre sheet is what began me rambling about that first visit to a city that never ceases to amaze and delight.

Henry Bessemer, the English inventor, is quoted as saying “On March 4, 1830 I arrived in London, where a new world seemed opened to me.”  I could well have said the same thing of June 10, 1969.

On this day in 1665: The first joint Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, publishes the first issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s longest-running scientific journal.

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