Backpacking; Throw away your preconceptions.

Backpacking; Throw away your preconceptions.

At the ripe old age of 56 I went backpacking

For some there may be a cry of ridiculous. For others, good on you mate.   I did something I haven’t done for 30 odd years. At the ripe old age of 56 I went backpacking and stayed in a hostel. Well, a few hostels,  which allowed me to complete the beautiful Coastal Walk from Portstewart to Ballycastle in Northern Ireland.  I’m not sure what I expected. I did know from  friends that the quality of accommodation had significantly  improved since way back when, but I did not expect the hospitality and companionship which are thrown in for free with a hostel stay.

My home was my badly packed backpack and would be for the next 7/10 days. I’d packed too much, treated it like a suitcase rather than taking those bare essentials. My route was a flight from Luton to Belfast, then rail and bus journey to Portstewart. By car you could travel by ferry from Holyhead to Dublin and a 3 hour drive to Portstewart. There is a morning ferry from Holyhead that gives plenty of time for the drive in Ireland and a conveniently located hostel on Holyhead to break the journey the night before.  ANGLESEY OUTDOOR CENTRE  is walking distance from the ferry port, so perfect for  foot passengers too.

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Backpacking the Causeway Coast

Backpacking with a 15kg “friend”

Once in Ireland and backpacking I had to carry my 15kg rucksack “friend” around like a needy child. The hostel owner in Portstewart (Pete), greeted me with tea biscuits and a sympathetic ear on my inadequate packing skills. My twin room was clean, tidy, basic and comfortable. I showered,acquainted myself with the kitchen and got to meet fellow travellers. “I’ve been thinking” says Pete  “Why don’t you take out the some of the stuff you’ve over packed, leave them here and pick them up when your finish the walk. There’s a train from Belfast, Coleraine to Portrush just down the road from here (Portstewart) easy enough.”  Sure enough that’s what I did, my “friend” losing over a third of it’s original weight. He didn’t introduce me to the Irish for idiot (edjit) but I could have accepted the label if offered.

It was this type of attitude I found typical at the other hostels I stayed as well. In Ballycastle the owner said she was light on bookings, offering me a single room for the same booking price as a dorm bed, 15 quid. “Here’s the kitchen, grab what you like tea, coffee, toast, cereal or cook if you want to”. A couple who were walking, sightseeing the delights of Ireland before they became Mr+Mrs later in the year, cooked a pasta evening meal. They offered me a place at their table, I nipped out for a bottle of Chardonnay. We toasted health and prenuptials before swapping stories and future plans. Just to round off the evening we walked a 100 metres to watch the local shallie band. Is this what I’ve been missing all those years?

Backpacking along the Northen Ireland Coastal Path
Backpacking along the Northen Ireland Coastal Path

Next stop was a hostel in Bushmills. It took me 15 minutes just to check in due to the delightful staff at reception. They couldn’t have been more helpful with, information, stories, jokes advice etc.  What did surprise me, was the gender and diverse age demographic of hostels attendees. Most of the chaps sat in the 35-50 years old group, whilst the gals averaged 25-30.

On the first night of hostel life I was encouraged to become exceedingly drunk by midweek revellers simply having a great time in a local bar. The owner of a charging tablet (Dennis) engrossed me with his stories of travelling to the Antarctic, building his own boat and the refurbishment of a dilapidated old school over the decades. Having done so much with his life, “out of the blue” as he put it, he had a stroke. It took him a full six months to recover, leaving him with impaired sight to his left eye. Instead of slowing down, it was his wake up call to get on with life.  Very quickly I became part of a community, people offering advice, destinations to explore, others to be avoided. Sharing became the norm. Hostel staff were caring and considerate without being intrusive.

From Bushmills I had the absolute pleasure of backpacking the coastal route from Giant’s Causeway to Ballytoy.

Wonderful day, beautiful views, where solitude and peaceful souls collide. Having enjoyed the harbour of Ballytoy along with tea and sandwiches, I started my final leg of the walk to Ballycastle. Third time lucky, again. My hostel host organised a drink, a chat and a single room, as the season was yet to begin in earnest. So having learned cotton tee shirts and backpacks do not compliment each other. Same story with wrong socks they don’t help, even in the right boots. I have learned hostel life is good, more than good and I have decided to go home and explore the UK Hostels.  Remember, you’re never too old to throw away your perceptions. One last request: If you see a fellow walker/hiker out backpacking, say hello and smile. You’re both on the same select team.

Backpacking along the Giants Causeway Coastal Path
Backpacking along the Giants Causeway Coastal Path

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