My son sat in the front seat next to me as we drove westward. The silence was deafening as drove through the rolling hills of southern England. The reason things were so quiet was that we boys were on solo mission to bring a busload of our stuff from the Isle of Wight back to Ireland.
In place of my wife and three daughters, the bus was rammed full of trinkets, old chairs, lamps, fossils, bedding and books. We even had a lawnmower in there somewhere. The roof was also stacked high. We must have looked like a mobile curiosity shop as we rolled along, our eclectic assortment of accoutrements visible through the windows.
I have become a great believer in avoiding motorways. The smaller roads are far more interesting, and you actually encounter the places that you are passing through. That morning we had driven slowly past the loose horses of the New Forest, through ancient glades of giant oaks, through villages of thatched cottages, and past old manor houses and meandering rivers. We had glimpsed kestrels, army tanks and deer. None of this would have been seen from the motorway.
We had a ferry to catch the following afternoon, but we had plenty time to tour at our leisure. I had decided to spend the night in St David’s, an ancient place of pilgrimage in the wilds of south west Wales. In the Middle Ages, it was said that three pilgrimages to St David’s were worth two to Canterbury, and one to Rome. I had always felt drawn to it, but never had been.
The best thing about the trip was the chance to just spend time alone with my boy. Our busy lives were on hold for a few days and we suddenly had endless hours to chat uninterrupted. We veered briefly back on to the motorway as we crossed the dramatic Severn bridge into Wales.
Wales is a country that continues to fascinate me, ever since I fell in love with it during a motorcycle trip a few years back. The story of our Fitzgerald surname tells that our ancestors lived there in the Middle Ages, Gerald having married Nesta, a Welsh princess. Such tales sparked my boy’s imagination about the ancient place we were journeying through.
The Welsh mountains were covered with unseasonal snow, much to my boy’s excitement. We again shunned the motorway and drove up into Brecon Beacons, and along wild roads until at last we sighted the Irish Sea. The water seemed to connect us to home, as we strolled along a beach.
Then, we pilgrims arrived in deep, atmospheric St David’s, where the cathedral [pictured] and its ruins spoke of ancient days. We walked down quiet streets and into to the cathedral’s embrace. We lit candles for those we loved. We even paid our respects at the tomb of our distant medieval uncle, Gerald of Wales – or uncle Gerry, as I call him. The pubs were full of kindly Welsh banter and good food. Sean had reveled in “boys club” all day, and the incredible lack of screeching. But before we went to sleep that night he admitted: “I miss those noisy girls.” I did too.
The next day the ferry took us to Ireland, where we continued west towards Cork, talking, joking and listening to music. Every moment of this time together deepened our already strong bond, subtly but surely. The new object of our pilgrimage was my parents’ house, and the waiting arms of my mother, just recently out of hospital.
After a warm fireside evening in the home place, and the safe sleep that is only possible in your childhood home, we unpacked the bus the next day, making room for the female contingent of our family who were arriving by air. At the airport, the kids ran to each other and embraced excitedly. Driving home from the airport with the full complement aboard, the familiar high-volume babble had returned with a vengeance. I said, “I missed you noisy girls.”