It’s great to be home again, Thursday 20 April 2017; there was a lot that happened between wheels up on our departure flight and wheels down upon our arrival. There were aches and pains; there were friends to reunite with and after two weeks, greetings and goodbyes to be said.
In the summer of 2016 the plans for our 2017 reunion were being discussed. This would be our third Titanic reunion after meeting the first time in the middle of the North Atlantic in April 2012 (see banner in my photo below).
The focal point that created this meeting began in 1909 in Belfast. Harland and Wolff decided they needed to build a ship that could compete with the Cunard Line ship builders. Traffic across the North Atlantic was busy, and profitable, with commerce between London and New York, specifically the Southampton docks, where people and goods shipped out travelling along this route. It was a proverbial “expressway” of traffic. Many ships passed eastbound liners going westbound, and westward going eastward. There was money to be made. Competition was keen.
Thus, it was imagined that Titanic could capture some of this business, so the largest ever moving object on earth was conceived. At the Thompson Dry Dock in Belfast, the colossus began (see my photo below).
The legendary liner Titanic was “unsinkable” and luxurious at an enormous size of 882.5′ in length. Her less famous sister ship, the Olympic, was a twin with only minor details to the trained eye to tell them apart. Much like identical twin children, where only the parents can tell one from the other. The Olympic (more later about this ship) survived her twin by many decades, since the largest liner ever launched, at that time, sank on her maiden voyage in 1912. Then the legend began. Books have been written, stories have been passed down by survivors, and recently movies have attempted to create this voyage. Some movies are better than others, but the real details are impossible to capture. Our small group of “Titanoraks” carries this event along with their connections and their interests—we meet every few years. We also get to meet those who have very personal stories of their relatives who went down with the Titanic. Ceremonies are held annually on 15 April (the date of the sinking).
William McQuillan, a stoker on the Titanic, his photo seen here tenderly held by my sweet wife Sheila Byron, as his granddaughter paused by his name on the memorial wall. This photo and the memorial service will have more details when we get to next week’s adventures in Ireland.
Our meeting in Alnwick (pronounced Ah-nick), England on Friday, 7 April 2017 was the start of our reunion for the 2012 North Atlantic meet up. We were tired since we had left Atlanta at 11:00 pm the evening before (Thursday 6 April 2017) and it was now 5:30 pm Friday 7 April 2017. The real adventure begins on Day Two.
We were talking and hugging, shaking hands and reuniting at The White Swan hotel. So many things to catch up on and time would accelerate, or seem to, for the next two weeks. People were arriving from Australia, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, across America, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thirty eight different stories and news bits to catch up on. Some of those who arrived earlier in the day visited an antique book store. They were the group who lived in the U.K. Our travel from the “the colonies” as I refer to America, didn’t allow us to spend the middle of the day in Alnwick.
We are now back down from our room and checked in for several days. It is time to meet up to lay out our evening, and an outline of the next several day’s outings. Our co-leaders are both doctors (Phd’s) and highly organized retirees. (We raised a few glasses and toast you now for all of your hard work!)
We have already received several detailed emails, but I’m sure our guides want to make sure everyone’s on the same page. You will see what I mean once we get into day two of our journey—when our first excursion is under way! Looking back now, two weeks later, I don’t know how we kept up. He’s like a former drill instructer—we were told, “Muster in the meeting room by the dining room at 5:30 sharp!!” What have we booked, an exercise routine or a fun time sight seeing? We shall see.
Dinner is at 7:30 pm, and with my tux on and my lovely wife dressed-to-the-nines, we hit the hotel bar first for some aperitifs—whisky and beer. Sitting down will be a welcomed event tomorrow, and this evening is a grand time. We have no clue how much walking is in store, but there is a well planned and tightly scheduled agenda. Tomorrow will be a castle and gardens tour.
Day Two of Our Adventure. A tour (walk about) of Alnwick, after a French themed breakfast at 8:30am Saturday 8 April 2017. I’m no longer hungry but far from full. My, but we really wanted to sleep in; we got very little sleep on the 8 hour flight over the “pond”, plus we lost five hours travelling eastbound. C’est la vie!
I put on my old reliable walking shoes and I met with my smoking pals out front of our hotel. I even met a few other “vapers” out front—we are glad we quit the cigs! One of my smoking pals vaped AND rolled his own. Impressive.
Afrer a brief time our guide and his wife came out front with iPad in hand and mustered us out and our adventure began. Viewing the photo above, we went to the left from the hotel. A group of 38 of us, with the senior members trailing at the end of the “parade”…
There were townspeople around walking dogs and shopping. It was a lovely Saturday morning, a bit brisk but the walking did keep us warm.
Our first stop was an open-air market. Very busy. I noticed one vendor was selling a large varity of nice boots, and, not being too adroit at converting £ to $, I decided to pass up making any purchases. Both my suitcase and Sheila’s were loaded to British Airways weight limit. No room for an extra sock! We decided before we left home not to bring back “trinkets”.
The fresh air was nice, the olde shoppes and narrow streets being left-hand drive were a constant source of amusement and interest. I can’t imagine what the locals must have thought of this troupe going about their quiet village so early in the morning.
Our first planned stop was several blocks away, but we still managed to have several people on either side of the narrow streets, looking in store windows and taking photos—only one “real” camera used the rest were smart phones.
Did I mention there were lots of planters along the streets with beautiful flowers? Quite a lovely town, or village—not sure which.
Turning the last corner, several blocks later, we arrived at an amazing castle! Everything in the area is old, but this place is ancient. Alwnick Castle. Home to Harry Potter films and the Downton Abbey television series. Wow!
My wife and I are delighted to offer you a very warm welcome to Alnwick Castle, which has been my family’s home for over 700 years. It is an important part of British heritage; its walls are steeped in history and filled with tales of warfare, romance and chivalry. We very much hope that you enjoy your visit to our special home.– Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland Alnwick Castle
No photos allowed inside, but the link above will give you plenty of details and photos.
The luncheon served in the castle café was a pleasant time to sit down briefly. Then outside to the courtyard and a vaping break combined with chatting up an elderly local chap and meeting a very interesting tour guide. During all of this there was a lovely wedding party with their family collecting up to go into the outside courtyard area of the castle grounds. Beautiful!
Our castle guide, Leslie Enos, met Frederick Fleet in 1961, a mere 4 years before this Titanic survivor would die. He was so amazed and lucky for this unique experience. He was so excited to tell us about his Titanic experience; he had never met one group of dozens of Titanoraks! Knowing that he personally met a surviving member of that ship who was in the crows nest on lookout 14 April 1912 was stunning!!
To cap off this day, we spent an hour just sitting in café chairs waiting on the younger members of our entourage to visit the Alnwick Gardens. I got as much fun watching families with their children walking around as they did, many of whom were eating ice cream cones from the outdoor restaurant. We were exhausted and knew it was still a hike to get back to our hotel! We were in an “energy saving mode”.
By 5:30 pm we were back at the hotel—worn out—and in yet another meeting. Our leader was laying out the next day’s activities and our evening dinner plans and sampling a local distiller’s wide variety of tasty products. The best gin you ever tasted is my only memory; but I was in need of a Guinness or a whisky. Off to the bar! Another lovely dinner at 7:30 pm, constant visiting anong tables and discussing our day and our reunion. Then, as customary, back to the bar for “dessert” and then off to bed, perchance to dream? A five hour time change does strange things to ones biorhythms.
Day Three of Our Adventure (Sunday 9 April 2017). We are not going to ever get any sleep! Sheila is used to getting more than 8 hours sleep, but I’m not. I feel her pain, but she’s having a good time in spite of the routine and sore feet. We will learn when we get home that we actually lost a few pounds after all of this. The walking has been beneficial and my feet are holding up wearing dress shoes all day. On day one, of the many miles we would walk, my comfortable shoes came unglued. I got a little unglued as well, I look down at my left shoe and think a leaf is stuck between the sole and the shoe. That would not be the case. My shoe broke, and I thought I had tied off the leather string. Later I looked down and my entire shoe was nearly “blown up” and I was a mile from the hotel. Why did I decide not to buy those boots I saw earlier? I had to wear my formal dress shoes the rest of the two weeks.
It is too early to have to get down to the dining room and get something to eat and then be on the tour. The bus is ready to depart Sunday morning at 0830 hours—Sharp! No room service meal in this “joint”. They are very polite and service is very British and proper. The accents and phrases they use are so quirky, and so is their food. No American fried bacon with your eggs, beans and sausages and ham-like bacon are their staples. A fry-up-full-british-breakfast includes potatoes and toast, eggs, and I don’t know what all.
We are on the bus and ready promptly. We depart at 8:30 am for a 90 minute ride to the Open Air museum. The countryside in eastern England is quite lovely; a lot of farms, sheep, and mostly small farm houses. Not one trailer (Mobile-Homes) like you see in farm areas of America.
This photo is the Turbinia, launched in 1894. What you see is the original ship, not a model, although it has been repaired and re-painted. It was the fastest ship of that day.
Our bus trip to the River Tyne for our next stop is not too far away. This is going to be a treat—no walking (or swimming), just a three hour boat ride with lunch and beer or wine.
After parking the bus, it is a short walk to cross this unusual bridge. It raises up for taller ships and blinks like an eye. It is in the up position in this photo. Here’s a short video: https://youtu.be/dkjY6COhR0Q
After another short bus ride we are at Trinity House. This beautiful building dates to 1803, but the guild which occupied it dates all the way back to 1514 under King Henry VIII. I told you everything around here was ancient.
Back to Alnwick for dinner and visiting the bar. Again. Tonight we get to relax, we didn’t walk all day!! We don’t even need to wear formal clothes for dinner. As usual, our table-mates have varied from night to night and the days adventures plus discussions about Titanic are ever present. The dining room is significant and for every night the entire dining room is reserved for our group.
Why is this dining room so special to us? It is literally identical to the first class dining room on the Titanic—it is the actual wood and fixtures rebuilt from when the Olympic was scrapped out in 1936. White Swan Hotel, Alnwick shown here.
After dinner we regroup in the bar for more visiting and yet another round of libations to ease the aches and pains of our day.
Day Four of Our Adventure (10 April 2017). This is the the fifth anniversary of our group sailing out of Southampton on our Titanic Memorial Cruise. Our last day has arrived. We are settled into a routine. We’ve gotten to know our driver Brian. We are a tightly knit group, but at the end of today I will come unwound. Profoundly!
Another bus trip and we have a 0730 Monday muster in the front lobby. Everyone is ready for a great day. Shown below is the oldest wooden warship in the British Navy. The HMS Trincomalee, launched in 1817. Still afloat but permanently docked here for visitors it is our first stop after an hour ride south of Alnwick.
I can’t imagine any crew members over 5′2″ being below deck; that’s about the total headroom. I got tired of bending down once our tour guide led us down there and truly back in time. The canon was interesting but I can’t imagine firing those guns in such a small place. I probably ruined my own hearing while in the military—I can’t imagine being able to hear after a sea battle! The living conditions for a long time under sail must have been brutal. I can see why sailors drank so much and swore so much when seen at port!
We all get loaded back on to our travelling home, and a short jaunt to an inn for a spot of lunch. Sandwiches and tea. Beer or other spirits for those who wish to take a wee nip and sit outside to have a “smoke” or “vape”.
The story of the Sheperd and Sheperdess is quite historic.
shepherdbeamish The [S]hepherd & [S]hepherdess pub and Holly House were built in the 18th Century, but were altered in the late 19th century. The pub is decorated with two life-sized painted lead figures of a Shepherd and a Shepherdess.
The Figures are said to date from the Napoleonic wars (1796-1815) when England’s armaments and munitions capability was restricted by a French blockade on lead. As part of clandestine measures to import the metal without detection, lead works of art were commissioned abroad. One of ten pairs of figures brought from the continent to be melted down for weaponry, the Shepherd and Shepherdess, escaped their intended fate when the squire of beamish Hall purchased them. Firstly, installed above the entrance to the Hall, they were later moved to the lawn when a storm destroyed the accompanying figures of a dog. Sometime in 1870, according to local legend, the squire was returning home after a night’s drinking and stumbled on the figures in the dark. The experience was such a shock that he gave the pair away to the inn at Beamish. Thereafter the pub was known as the Shepherd & [S]hepherdess Inn.
Having finished my lunch and a chat outside with fellow Titanoraks, I took my empty Sheperd & Sheperdess glass back in to the bar. I asked the owner/bar keep, “Do you have a web site?” He replied he did, and I inquired, “Might I be able to purchase a glass like this?” as I held up my empty pint. “No,” he replied, “let me give you this clean one to take home…” I was gob-smacked, as they say! (Foot note: The clean one made it safely home to The Colonies! The one shown below was exchanged for the free one)
The Beamish Village was our afternoon stop before heading back to Alnwick. This village recreates life as it used to be. A trolley ride. Beer stop at period pub complete with an off-tuned piano. Quaint. Cold beer.
After an hour ride, some closing remarks about the past few days travels, we would be ending our fun and mostly uneventful—well planned trip to Alnwick. As we arrive at the parking lot behind the hotel we say thank you to our great tour guide Brian. He was prompt getting us to our places, and we were very pleased.
We traipse back to our hotel, a bit sad about this part of our trip being over so soon, but excited about the Gala Dinner planned for our closing day at the White Swan.
I enter our wee bar for a pint with the group. As I am slowly sagging into my lounge chair, I look at the table… “WHERE’S MY iPHONE!!!!!” Not in my jacket pocket zipped up! “Do you have my iPhone Sheila!!” My eyes dart about the table for my phone, and to the others with me. As my heart races, and my face goes ashen, “I need to call BRIAN!!!” I bolt out of my chair and run to the parking lot only to find the bus gone…the only think I can hear in my head is ”I left my #%@& phone on the bus!!”
Arriving at the front desk in shock and panting, and after calling Dr. Telford in his room from the front desk getting Brian’s cell number; I leave him a hasty voice message pleading my case when he doesn’t pick up. The taxi the desk clerk called for me arrives after an eternity.
The 5 minute trip to the bus barn took an hour—so it seemed. Arriving at the bus location I confirmed the bus was there. Locked!! My mind now in full turmoil!! I see a sign on the building next to the bus, “OFFICE”. After entering the door I see another sign with an arrow pointing up which says “OFFICE” and I read as I run past it and taking two steps at a time! “Hello? HELLO???” No one there, so I go loping down the stairs and outside—confused and having no idea of what’s next—I look over at my taxi waiting and I see Brian coming around the corner!!. My iPhone in his extended hand. My ears went deaf. My mind overloaded! What did he say? I guess he got my voice message before I arrived at the bus barn. I am now aware and explain to Brian, “Tomorrow, early, we fly to Belfast! Our e-tickets are on that phone. My credit card in in the wallet-case with the phone. Thousands of photos, documents, etc etc my electronic-life lives there! You are a Saint, Brian!” I think that’s what I said. My mind collapses as I climb back in to the taxi.
“I got it!!!” I exclaim as I enter the bar with the “trophy” held over my head as if I’d won an Olympic event. (Irony intended) My pint of Guinness is still as I left it. Gulp gulp, I down my pint. That is also another first; I normally savor “me Guinness “.
Calm down…I once was unwound, but my phone was found and now I’m going to hang around. “Another wee pint please!!…”
Tonight is our grande finale, formal, live music, singers, and a wonderful dinner. To cap off the evening there is a quiz to work on. Each table gets a 40 question test to answer. The most correct group answers entry wins a prize. Here’s some sample questions. Our group missed with about 12 answers wrong! It was not a very easy test as you see from this image:
The evening just flew by. We all agreed, “We need to begin planning for our 2019 reunion. Liverpool to Southampton, then across to Cherbourg, France. The days of the week in 1912 and 2019 match up—the dates in April will be even more significant.”
Once the good byes were said it was one last trip back to our room. Up the stairs, through a small hall way and then through a door, a right turn down a short hallway, another door and a short flight of stairs then a final door and right turn to our room on the left. Nothing like an old fashioned board house-hotel.
Day Five of Our Adventure. (Tuesday 11 April 2017)
This morning is bright and crisp as a few of us gather out front where we met on Friday. It seemed like yesterday, but the memories we packed into this lovely area in and around Newcastle, England will be reviewed time after time for the rest of our lives.
Taxi with Claire, Denis, Sheila, Maureen and me to the airport. We will be in Ireland in a few hours. The flight to Belfast was a non-event, no tour guide needed. Relaxing actually. A routine flight across the Irish Sea and an invitation to visit with the Nightingales in their home. A change of pace to kick back and watch TV and chat. Sleep in and or stay up late. Refreshing our bodies!
Day Six of Our Adventure. (Tuesday 12 April 2017). A tour of the Dark Hedges, “Game of Thrones” television series. We also drove through several very typical Irish seaside villages.
Day Seven of Our Adventure. (Thursday 13 April 2017)
We leave for Cobh, Ireland early today, but our only schedule is…no schedule, just arrive in the coastal city at the southern end on Ireland. Lovely country, all motorway or dual-carriageway. The direction signs are in Gaelic, unpronounceable for my wife and I, and in English.
We met for lunch met with those who were already in Cobh. The choice of the Bunnyconnellan was a perfect relaxing spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on Cork Island near the Titanic’s last port of call. It was not always easy to keep as many diverse agendas in sync but the view from the restaurant was lovely. You may have noticed by now, not a lot of clear blue sunshiny weather, but it keeps Ireland green!
We found our hotel in the heart of Cobh, Gilbert’s Bistro in the Square, walking distance from our other gathering place—the Titanic Bar & Grill.
It was next to the the sea, intimate and cozy. There were about 15 of us sitting at two tables set at 90° to each other. It was not easy to talk around the table sitting this way.
While out on the deck vaping, I met a fan of a Fox News show, “The Tucker Carlson Show”. This is definitive proof that the world is small!!
The spectacular sunset seen above was my favorite photograph I made of the 200+ I took!
The old Titanic pier, long ago abandoned, was also right here at the restaurant.
Day Eight of Our Adventure. (Friday 14 April 2017)
Outdoor café breakfast. Good Friday found nearly nothing open.
On our way back to Belfast stopped at a small inn for a toilet break and it was unusual. The display in the lobby area indicated this was a fun place after dark.
Day Nine of Our Adventure (Saturday 15 April 2017). A memorial service at Belfast City Hall. A visit to a local pub, Claire, Sheila and I. So much fun to be in Belfast, our second visit to this city.
The memorial service very moving, as it was in 2014. We met two relatives of stokers who died in the sinking of the Titanic. So sad to be so bear to the real people who lost relatives. The movies about that disaster can never connect you personally to the common citizens whose lives were torn apart. May they Rest In Peace…
A dander found us at a wee pub; here’s Sheila chatting with Claire (not in photo).
Day Ten of Our Adventure (Sunday 16 April 2017). A day off but it is Easter Sunday
Day Eleven of Our Adventure (Monday 17 April 2017). Easter Egg hunt with the Nightingale family. What an honor!!! Dinner at Del Toro steak house.
Day Twelve of Our Adventure. (Tuesday 18 April 2017). Claire drives us a short distance to Belfast International Airport. Goodbyes are said and we will not see anyone we know until we arrive in Atlanta two days later.
Always sad to look back on an adventure after looking forward to it for over a year!
The airport isn’t busy in the middle of the week. It sure is relaxing to know that our next flight in England isn’t until tomorrow—phew. We remember the rush trying to maintain a running pace getting to our next (connecting) flight!
Day Thirteen of Our Adventure. (Wednesday 19 April 2017). A day relaxing at our hotel, breakfast and a 5 minute walk to the Newcastle airport for lunch. We flew to London and checked in to yet another hotel. A bit expensive but time for a light snack and relaxation.
Day Fourteen of Our Adventure. (Thursday 20 April 2017). We had time for lunch at the airport. We had time to watch people. We read the newspaper. We leisurely got to the gate and ready to be home!
Back in America. What a trip!!! The leisurely trip home with two overnights; a lot of relaxed time in two airports (Newcastle and London) made our journey stress free. No rushing about through security lines, no time stresses. This pace made for a time to reflect, eat and enjoy adult beverages, and people watch. Our British Airways flight was actually fun. Coach seats aren’t that bad, even though we were in the back of the plane with some colorful hoi poloi. The flight was smooth and relaxing until about five hours in to the eight hour conclusion of our trip. Clear air turbulence. CAT can be as scary as flying through dark and menacing thunder clouds. We were buffeted for an hour. Not severe, but continuous. In front of us was an older couple, and “the missus” was very religious from my view three seats abaft. During the shaking and banging of the plane (a 777-300), she began to raise her hand and point heavenward with highly animated gestures. Her pleadings with The Lord finally prevailed and her admonitions were granted! The flight continued on smoothly—finally. Sometime later I decided to use the toilet and it looked like a goat had been sacrificed in there! What a friggin mess. Different folk react differently to crises; some pray, some destroy the toilets!!!
Great journey. It will take weeks to totally unwind!!! Hated to leave y’all but love to be home. Life is always about living in the “middle”—between the peace and love of friends and the great unwashed masses on the other extreme.
From the “middle”, a very serene place. Thanks for reading…to the end of this reunion. 2019 is getting closer every day! See y’all then.
It’s great to be home again!