Belfast is a strange place. The city centre feels safe and welcoming unlike the last time I visited, however one of our last guests ventured into the sectarian suburbs and reported that is still felt pretty scary. Wandering through the city on a Friday night we were struck by two particular types of people. The greying swaying men clearly suffering the effects of the drink and pairs of teenage girls in tight minidresses, long straight hair and world weary hard faces. Neither group seemed to be having much fun.
We fancied some Japanese food and there are a surprising number of options in the city, however the venues are all too eager to provide the craic and so seem to struggle with their identity. Are they a bar, are they a restaurant or are they a night club? Zen, where you might expect to have a chilled out experience played banging club music at a volume even the cognoscenti would struggle with. The same applied to two others so we eventually plumped for the Red Panda, where we were serenaded by Chinese covers of 1980’s classics, and served perfectly good traditional Chinese food. The next evening we found a great modern restaurant, Stocks located upstairs at the old market. This has good service, an excellent value pre theatre fix price menu and tolerable music. Worth a visit if you are in town.
With our previous guests dispatched we had nearly two weeks before we welcomed the next group. The couple who where booked on the Irish Sea leg having pulled out because of a bereavement. This was a welcome break given the intensity of the past month and we started planning where to spend the the extra days off. The forecasts suggested we should get to North Wales sooner rather than later but which way to go and where to stay.
Numerous e mails and some more passage planning settled the matter. Going down the Irish coast to Dublin and across would be longer and a lot more expensive as well as leaving a risky long passage from Ireland across to the bar at Caernarfon. Going across to the Cumbrian coast and on to Liverpool as the original passage plan was a long haul and Albert Dock at Liverpool was closed to seagoing vessels as their lock gates were out of action. So we opted for the shortest direct route.
Leaving Belfast on a calm sunny morning, the haze of the pollution from the ferries hung over the city. We motored down through the Donagadee Sound and on to the tranquil Knockinelder Bay were we anchored for the night. From there we sailed across a misty sea to the Isle of Man, winding through the Sound of Calf on the last of the flood and on to Port St Mary on south tip of the island.
We anchored for a night before berthing on Alfred Pier for another. The harbour master couldn’t have been more accommodating, even giving me a lift 8 miles to the nearest red diesel station to fill our cans for the next leg. The pier is a substantial stone edifice with a tidal range of 6 metres requiring long lines and nerves of steel to mount the vertical access ladder.
Keen to beat the coming strong westerlies we set off for North Wales at 05:30 the next day for the 60 mile passage. The sea was glassy calm and the weather moist. Soon we had the tide on our starboard quarter and were making good time to Puffin Island at the east end of the Menai Straits and into Porth Penrhyn the last commercial port on the north coast and in need of some major TLC. It had been the busiest slate port in North Wales, servicing the huge Penrhyn quarry. Now it is pretty dormant and ironically sometimes hosts slate ships bringing slate shingle into north Wales for construction and landscaping.
We stayed here for two days while we sorted out our next berth. Conwy could take us but we could only get in and out on the top of the tide. Caernarfon had offered us a berth on the ferry pier in the straits but this would be untenable in the 34 knot gusts in the forecast. They final came good and made space in town on the Slate Quay under the castle walls. So with top mast down (to get under Britannia bridge) and bow sprit up (to fit in the proffered berth) we boarded the pilot, Emett, and the Caernarfon HM, David, and with David at the helm we set off straight into a wet SW 6 gusting 7, through the treacherous Swellies and into the relative shelter of the inner harbour at Caernarfon and it’s ancient harbour wall under the shadow of the castle.
Now food in Wales has got much better since I visited for summer holidays as a kid. But we drew the line at a seven course tasting menu at ‘ Sheeps and Leeks’ the self styled top restaurant in Caernarfon. Similarly the ubiquitous packets welsh cakes look a poor comparison to those of my Cardiff grandmothers. And just how many plates of cheese on toast, sorry welsh rarebit, can you pass off as traditional breakfast So on the first night in we hit the award winning Caernarfon Tandoori for a really good traditional Indian at very reasonable prices. Another day we were lulled into a false sense of anticipation by ‘welsh lamb, laverbread croquettes and mint dip.’ Instead of a couple of slices of rare lamb with croquettes and minty gravy a couple of croquettes turned up with over cooked shredded lamb, lots of potato and no discernible hint of seaweed.
The saving grace for Welsh cuisine was not a grand establishment but a café called Y Gegin Fach (the little kitchen) a flash back 30 years serving great local sausages, lobscows and finally some home-made welsh cakes that look and taste as they should. It was like being in another country, everyone but us nattering away in Welsh, and clearly knowing each other. They could be the caste of Under Milk Wood, even Rosie Probert was there!
Now we are waiting for our next guests to arrive; diesel is loaded, water replenished, provisions purchased and Snark is clean and polished (well not polished exactly) beds made and ready to set of on our six day voyage to Cardiff our fourth and last capital city.