I’m just back from a few days with beekeepers in Northern Ireland, my first visit there. At last year’s Gormanston, as I was relaxing in the lounge, a girl, Vanessa Drew, whom I didn’t really know, came up and asked me if I’d help her revise for her Intermediate exam as she was getting in a last minute panic. Of course I agreed and we sat on the couch and went through the syllabus together. She seemed to me to know her stuff ok but was a bit nervous of Latin names for diseases etc. When I tried to find her afterwards to ask how she had got on she was not to be found. She had skedaddled back up North in a fit of depression. Of course I wrote a sonnet about it (as one does!) and sent it to her by email. She liked it so much she put it on her office wall and told me she’d read it out on the local radio station where she has a regular slot.
This year she was taking her Senior and, again, she picked my brains, both by email in advance and in the refectory at Gormanston. While she was there I seized the opportunity to get somebody to photograph us together on the couch as I want to use it as the basis of a sketch to go opposite the sonnet in my poetry book which I hope to publish soon.
A couple of weeks ago she invited me to visit for her xxxxth birthday party (I never disclose a lady’s age, but there’s a clue in the xs), so of course I accepted. She asked for another poem for a present, which is reproduced in the next paragraph, but I also painted her portrait in oils, using the photograph to get her likeness right. I adorned her blouse with a butterfly: Vanessa otherwise known as the Painted Lady. As she is blonde I set her against a dark background, a purplish hillside representing the Mourne Mountains (which she had promised to take me to see) surmounted by a cloudy night sky. In a break in the clouds the constellation Cassiopaiea appears. This is named after a fabulously beautiful queen and which appears to circle the Pole Star. An astronomer looking at the picture would be able to fix the Star of the North where the white of Vanessa’s left eye is. I finished the picture a couple of days before I was due to fly over and was worried lest the paint would still be wet and get smudged, but bubblewrap and a mushroom crate in my suitcase protected it ok.
Here’s the poem: VANESSA AT 40!
It’s time Vanessa learned to act her age!
No longer should she play the dizzy fool.
This birthday is the time to turn the page,
To be sedate and not to lose her cool.
For forty years her life has been uphill:
She’s passed the peak and now starts the descent.
You’ll find life passes much more quickly, girl,
And wonder, daily, just how your time went.
So do things now – make time while yet you can,
But plan ahead for failing strength and brain
Unless you think you’ll be a Peter Pan,
But really, at your age, that is insane.
The best advice is: do just what you please,
But preferably do it with your bees.
A friend drove me to Bristol airport to catch the flight to Belfast. From the air it looks very pleasant with lots of trees apart from in a few modern housing estates where they haven’t had time to grow yet. We landed a little after noon and, after a little confusion at the car parks, Vanessa collected me and took me to her mansion in the middle of nowhere about a dozen miles from the Mournes. The nearest neighbour is 2 fields away.
Within 4 hours, after the most vigorous prolonged exercise I have taken for years, I was atop Doan, one of the Mournes, at almost 2,000 feet. I don’t know the official definition of a mountain as opposed to a hill, but I think that if you have to use your hands as well as your feet it is a mountain, which this was. Our guide, Tom Hawthorne, besides being a beekeeper, is trained in mountain rescue and advised, as we climbed the rocky bit, to maintain 3 points of contact with the ground. I managed to fall over twice but was undamaged.
On the way there, at a pause for breath, I noticed that the hill/mountain we were approaching had the same angles of slope as I had invented for the painting so, without telling her why, I got Vanessa to pose for a photograph with her head obscuring the peak, just as I had depicted. Unfortunately the racing clouds we were passing through may have obscured the exact angles.
We went back to the mansion (her kitchen alone is bigger than the footprint of my entire house and so was my bedroom!) where she cooked us rabbit casserole. A few drinks and the exercise ensured I got a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, when Vanessa was over her hangover, we went to Castlewellan and to Dundrum, filling the back of her car with trugloads of seaweed from the shores of a lough. This is destined for her garden. At one stage she tuned into the local radio station U105 and I heard the announcer proclaim that Chris the Poet was visiting!
We called on a well-known local beekeeper, Joe Thompson, who showed us his bees and collection of mini-nucs and inventions and then spent a couple of hours entertaining us with bee-talk, tea and cakes. Eventually we made our way back to Vanessa’s where she fed us on rabbit and chips, a new combination for me.
Next day, while Vanessa was preparing for her birthday party, her husband, Russ, and Tom’s wife, Joy, took me on a tour of the picturesque coastline, heading anti-clockwise. Scotland occupied much of the line of sight to the east and I waved to my friend Lorraine who lives near that bit I think. Round to the north we did the touristy things like crossing to an islet via a wobbly rope bridge and visiting the Giant’s causeway. The basalt columns are much smaller than I had imagined and I was able to demonstrate that they are suitable for hopscotch.
We went on to Bushmills but unfortunately didn’t have time to take in a tour of the world’s oldest distillery and sample some of it’s products. It had been raining off and on and I got a picture of a rainbow arching over the distillery. We visited a couple of shops in the town and I saw honey on sale for £6 for a mere 340 grams. I reckon that to be about £8 a pound! There were also some round sections on sale. You don’t often see them.
When we got back to Vanessa’s we found all ready for the party with Tom acting as head chef. People started to arrive at sevenish, mostly beekeepers including Norman Walsh OBE, whom I know from Gormanston and other events. The table was set for 13 (lucky or unlucky?) in the conservatory. When Vanessa’s attention was elsewhere I smuggled in her portrait and hid it behind a sofa, later moving it, still hidden, to a corner where it would be out of her line of vision. At the end of the meal I read the poem to some acclaim and later, returning from a visit to the loo, I surreptitiously uncovered the picture as I passed by. It didn’t take her long to twig and then she realised why I had mentioned earlier that her hair wasn’t as blonde as it had been in the summer and was parted in a different place.
The food was magnificent (but didn’t include rabbit) and the wine and beer flowed freely. Somebody, I don’t remember who, brought along some potheen (poitín), and also some sloe vodka, equally strong. Although served by the thimbleful, there were plenty of thimbles! The favourite way to drink it was with a little honey stirred in.
As usual with beekeepers there was lots of bee-talk but what surprised me was how ‘political’ it was with talk of the ‘black’ brigade vs the importers; of INIB which appears to cover the same ground as UBKA; of this branch having issues with that branch. Much of it went over my head and I was having difficulty hearing as the acoustics in the conservatory reflected the sound and made it very noisy, giving the impression that people were shouting, which they weren’t really!
The party eventually broke up and I got to my bed at 5am. I woke with a hangover (I don’t get one of those every year!) at 8 but was over it by the time I got up at 10.30 where Tom was, once again, preparing a proper Irish fried breakfast.
In the early afternoon, when all the other guests had departed, it had warmed up enough for Vanessa to show me her bees. She has half a dozen or so hives in her garden. Although predominantly black there was a good scattering of brown-striped bees also, so they are officially mongrels. They were very well-mannered throughout the interruptions. I had bare hands and feet and had no stings at all, although I did find it hard to concentrate when I felt a bee climbing my leg inside the trousers. Vanessa is feeding her bees at the moment and also has her Apiguard on for (or, rather, against) Varroa. We weren’t able to take out the Varroa tray to count examine and count the fallen mites.
We ran out of time before finishing the hives as I had a plane to catch and had yet to pack (somehow some of the potheen and vodka found its way into my case). We went on another tour, visiting the aptly named Windy Ridge where there is a shrine at the place where a local chap, as a child in the early 50s, saw the Virgin Mary on several occasions, as also did him Mother once. He happened to be there when we arrived and shook hands, although I didn’t realise until told afterwards whom he was. Then we visited some standing stones, a dolmen, where Vanessa and I photographed each other pretending to be holding up the lintel. After that we had to find our way to the airport with the help of the car’s sat-nav.
And so my visit came to an end. I had a brilliant time and was very highly impressed by the friendship and hospitality to be found in Northern Ireland. I hope to go there again some day!