The alarm on my iPhone woke me at 8am from the best night’s sleep I had had in ages. I arose from my bed in Betws-y-Coed, got showered, dressed and put my face on in time for the 9am breakfast time. I exited the room and knocked on Andrea’s door across the landing. She was almost ready, so shortly we both made our way downstairs to breakfast. Paul the Landlord was waiting for us, his stripy apron signifying that breakfast was indeed on its way. However, before we could eat, he gave me a warning “Check your ferry is still on, the weather has been really bad and flights have been cancelled”. No sooner had he said that, than I received an email from Mrs Kirsty back home saying that “it said on the BBC news that all ferries across the Irish Sea had been cancelled”. I quickly looked up Irish Ferries’ website on my phone and discovered that our sailing was still on, but other sailings had been cancelled due to high winds and rain. Apparently we were in the tail end of a hurricane! Well, there’s not a lot I could do about that, so I headed back into the dining room for breakfast.
And what a breakfast! There was a large selection of juices and cereals left out, so I took my pick and started eating. Andrea meanwhile raved about the quality of the locally produced yoghurt, although I would happily live in a world without any yoghurt. Disgusting stuff, like milk that has gone off. Anyway, in came the cooked breakfasts. My goodness, they were everything that the Haddon Hall breakfasts were not. Delicious and huge. “Who ordered the scrambled egg?”, asked Paul as he walked into the dining room with two large plates full of food. That was me, so I got a mountain of scrambled egg, 2 lovely sausages, 2 rashers of bacon, baked beans and the most delicious mushrooms I have ever eaten. A big pile of peppery buttery yummy mushrooms. And if that wasn’t enough, in came the toast. The white toast was just that, white toast, but the brown toast was magnificent. Rustic wholemeal bread, toasted to perfection, just the thing to accompany this breakfast. Then with the cooked breakfast over, a little bit of marmalade on that lovely toast, with a pot of coffee. It was, in short, gorgeous.
With breakfast finished, Andrea had to pack away most of her bits and pieces, which I had already done, so I took my cases out to the car. The previous night we had parked about 15 metres down the road from our B&B, but in the light of day I could see that we had only gone and parked outside another B&B. As I was opening the boot of the car, the landlady (presumably) of the other B&B emerged to bring in the milk from her doorstep, and initiated a conversation with me. A typically British conversation about the weather, but a conversation nonetheless. She didn’t look at me funny, she didn’t act suspicious, I can only assume she just saw another woman and said hello. How nice!
Soon we were on our way, having promised first to leave a glowing review on Trip Advisor (I did, here) and began the short drive up the road to Swallow Falls. We parked up in the lay-by at the entrance to the falls, and hadn’t walked too far when we noticed that there was a hut and turnstile, as well as a fee of £1.50 to go to see the falls. I didn’t mind the fee as such, but I was wearing my boots which have a small heel on them, so I was a bit unsure of how appropriate they were given the very wet conditions, albeit the rain had temporarily abated. As we approached the hut I raised my foot to indicate to Andrea my concern about my heels, but the man working in the hut said to her “Don’t worry about your shoes, love, it’s paved all the way down”. Well that was good news. Also, good news that he didn’t seem to notice anything “unusual” about us. Hurrah!
I had seen a few pictures of Swallow Falls the night before, a very pretty cascade of a waterfall. However, the wet and stormy conditions had turned the falls into a raging torrent. As luck would have it, it turned out we had picked the perfect time to visit! We went down the steps and the sight of those falls was breathtaking. I’m sure the spray being thrown up wasn’t doing wonders for my hair, but it was just such a stunning sight. I took several photos and videos, so I just stuck them all together in one video. And yes, Kirsty has been going a bit mad with the super slo-mo feature on her new iPhone.
I think that last picture on the video is my favourite photo from the entire holiday, as I somehow managed to take a good one of both of us in a selfie.
We stayed at the falls for some time, appreciating it from several different vantage points, but eventually we felt the heavens open again so beat a hasty retreat to the car. The problem was that despite the rain, the scenery was so beautiful that we kept having to stop for a quick photo. Whether more “waterfall selfies” on a footbridge over some beautiful white water rapids just upstream from Swallow Falls, or a beautiful long lake surrounded by mountains in the mist, this is one beautiful part of the world and it demanded to be photographed.
The next stop on our final day’s tour was Penrhyn Castle, just outside Bangor. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived there we had spent so much time at Swallow Falls and generally admiring the scenery, that we only really had an hour to spend at the castle. It was another National Trust property, so yet again Andrea flashed her membership card, and I got saddled with paying the entrance fee. The attendant here valiantly tried to coax me into joining the National Trust, but I had to stay resolute and refuse. The fact is, I might well have joined had I been there as Bob, or even (dare I say it?) if Kirsty were my legal identity. But neither of these scenarios was the case, so Andrea and I walked up towards the castle, a 19th century neo-Norman building. It was very impressive from the outside, but given our highly restricted time, we didn’t have time to stop for photos.
Like the previous day at Charlecote Park, the guides inside the castle were full of boundless enthusiasm for their castle, and I was soon conversing away with them all like there was no tomorrow. I was particularly sorry to have to leave the dining room, as our guide there was so endearingly eccentric he was a joy to talk with. I particularly enjoyed his tale of how all the women would be ejected from the room after dinner so the men could stay on and discuss serious matters. So important was it that the menfolk did not miss any of the conversations, that there was a little screen in the corner behind which they could, to put it bluntly, poo into a pot while still being part of the talk. Men!
All too soon we had to leave for our ferry, leaving part of the castle unexplored and many conversations unspoken. We were running very late, so much so that we pretty much ran (in these heels!) back to the car. No sooner had we got the engine running than Andrea received an email update from the ferry company that we had a delay, and had an extra half hour to kill. There was no point in going back into the castle, so we left the grounds resolving to think of something on the way.
We didn’t have to go very far before we found somewhere to visit. A place that you only visit because of its name. Somewhere I had been before (as Bob) way back in 1993, but where Andrea had never been. The town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Thank goodness this isn’t an audio blog! We took each other’s pictures at the train station, and since we had only just driven into town, we passed a few more minutes by going into the nearby factory shop of the local clothing manufacturer James Pringle weavers. As soon as we walked in the door Andrea gave me a nudge. There was Welsh being spoken there. It was like a foreign country! Also a foreign country were some of the fashions on display. A foreign country entirely populated by septuagenarians. Andrea and I are both in our forties, but the clientele and target market of these fashions made us feel like little girls by comparison. I did manage to find one single piece of jewellery that I liked, but by and large the shop was a bit of a washout.
We made our way to Holyhead and joined the back of the queue of traffic at at around 1.45pm. Shortly afterwards, an Irish Ferries employee came walking down the line of cars explaining to everyone that the ferry still hadn’t docked as it was too stormy, and it would try again at 2.30pm, but nothing was going to happen until at least then. We didn’t need to be told twice. The good thing about being at the back of the queue was that we could simply reverse out of the queue, and head back out to a shopping complex on the outskirts of Holyhead.
As soon as we arrived, I noticed that there was a branch of Brantano shoes. I have bought shoes from them online, but as they don’t have any stores in Ireland I had never had a chance to browse in person. Plus, they do women’s shoes up to a size 10, which is even too big for me! They had a good range in my size, and even 25% off many of them. I tried on a couple of pairs; a pair of t-bar Mary Janes which were OK, and a pair of heeled Oxford brogues, which I loved. So I bought them. And this is where I had the second and last not-so-good experience of the holiday. The woman who served me was as nice and friendly as can be, I can’t complain about her at all. However, her younger colleague, who looked to have barely reached her twenties, kept looking at me with a big smile on her face as I stood at the counter, then looking away when I looked at her. And not a nice smile, a smile that was a barely suppressed laugh. A smile that said I had been totally read and in her opinion looked, well, laughable. It wasn’t a nice feeling, but at the same time, I had a lovely new pair of shoes in most unexpected circumstances, so sod her. I had interacted with probably hundreds of people in the last 5 or 6 days and had less than perfect experiences with two of them, and one of those just made a mess of trying to be nice. So it’s ok really.
We managed a very short trip into Peacock’s when I realised we needed to go back and check if the ferry had docked yet. It was still trying, so rather than joining the queue again and face the prospect of being stuck in a line that was going nowhere, we parked up and walked into the ferry terminal for a coffee. We sat having another lovely chat watching the world fail to go by. After our coffees Andrea nipped to the ladies, just at it was announced that the ferry had successfully docked, and that foot passengers should make their way to check-in. Suddenly from loitering in the middle of a full but fairly relaxed and motionless terminal, I found myself like a salmon swimming upstream just trying to dodge all the passengers heading towards the terminal. But you know what? I was fine. I was there, surrounded by hundreds of people, and I was fine. No problems, no panics, I was just another person.
We got into the car and rejoined the queue. This time I was going to do the talking, there was no way I was going to ask Andrea to deal with officialdom as I had done on the outwards leg of our journey. There was no problem, and I was handed our boarding cards, and passes for the club class lounge as well as meal vouchers to make up for the delay. The problem was, there were complimentary nibbles available in the club lounge anyway so we were unsure of the value of those vouchers to us. In the end we never used them.
It took a long time to get to the front of the queue, but shortly after 4.30pm we drove up the ramp and on to the ferry again. We walked past all the working class people in steerage (joke!) on our way up to club class, where we remained for quite some time. Due to the weather, it was well after 6 before the ferry started moving, but we kept ourselves alert with coffee, juice, danish pastries, scones and little smoked salmon canapés. By the time we arrived at Dublin it was gone 10pm, and our ferry had been due to dock a full five hours earlier.
I had one more interaction as Kirsty, a stop for diesel at a service station north of Dublin. It was late, so it was a hatch-only service, and I had to pre-book the amount of fuel going in. All negotiated with minimal fuss, plus a bit of a moan with a fellow driver about what a stupid system this was.
By close to midnight we had arrived at Andrea’s house and I had to say goodbye to my best friend and pretty much constant companion for the last five days. We took her bags out of the boot and brought them into her house. A quick bathroom break for me and then it was a very difficult goodbye. I knew that this was the end, it was over, and all that was waiting for me now was Bob. In the short term at least. I so didn’t want to leave, but I had to. I still have a family, and despite all my adventures as Kirsty, I still love them. It didn’t make the parting any easier though.
The next stop was the Belfast Butterfly Club, where I let myself in at 12.40am. I stood in front of the full length mirror, having one last look at this reflection that had become familiar, indeed had become my self-image over the last few days. I was no longer surprised to see a woman when I looked in the mirror, I expected it. That was all about to change back, and I had to psych myself up to do it. It was so hard. I would say that taking that first step and starting to shed the layers of femininity was one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. My arms were shaking. My legs were shaking. I felt like I was on the verge of a child-like tantrum, I wanted to flail my arms around screaming “No it’s not fair, I’m not changing”. But instead I silently resigned myself to removing everything, and I replaced it all with the male items I had left there over five days earlier.
That last drive back to my house was a curious mixture of deflation at the loss of my femininity, and excitement at the prospect of seeing my wife and daughters again. At around 2am I walked through my front door, and dragged my cases upstairs. Even then, sleep was not on the agenda. I had to unpack now, so the kids wouldn’t see all my female clothing. Mrs Kirsty woke up, so although I was disturbing her, at least I could talk to her. Finally, finally, at 3.15am I got to bed. I had to get up for work in not much more than three hours. I was home, and back to normality. But I’m not sure how normal anything can be again.
In writing this rather lengthy account of my first female holiday, I have tried by and large to stick to an account of what happened, without digressing too much into how it affected and continues to affect me, and to hold back on what perspective the next few weeks have given me. I have been saving that up for next time. So there’s one more “New Horizons” blog to come, all about what it means for me if anything.