Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 4

Bray Railway Station is the point of arrival for most visitors. It was renamed Bray Daly in 1966 for Ned Daly from Limerick, commander of the 1st battalion in 1916, and sentenced to death. He was the youngest to be executed at the age of twenty five. The War of Independence features in the station’s murals. One panel proved controversial. Originally the panel showing withdrawing British soldiers had the Union Jack being trailed along the ground. This was replaced with one where a soldier leads a wounded bulldog onto the train.

There’s a direct route from the East platform to the seafront. The main entrance, facing west, leads to the old town, a half mile’s distance via tree lined avenues of Quinsboro and Florence Roads. Heading left, we keep to our route along Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast, returning to the seafront by way of Albert Walk.

There’s a small clock tower and barometer to the right of the entrance. Henry and Rose has occupied the corner for as long as I can recall. This is the go-to place for fish and chips. A must for any day, or night, by the seaside.

Albert Walk honours either Queen Victoria’s husband, or more likely, their son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and later Edward VII who has a number of roads and terraces in Bray named for him. It’s a distinctive facet of Bray and Dun Laoghaire where the nineteenth century naming survives, retaining a patina of British Imperialism despite the return of the native. The Wilde Irishe abide, of course, like the flora and fauna, forever pushing through. Interestingly, along the left hand side, beneath the wall from the Stationmaster’s House, a sloped verge has been colonised by Edible Bray for the growing of herbs. A garden in the city. The buildings house an eclectic mix of shops and cafes. The lane is sometimes jokingly referred to as Bray-jing, because of its concentration of Chinese business, at times acting as base camp for the Chinese New Year parade. The ethnic mix includes Italian and Polish, but all are welcome. Albert Walk and environs may fancifully be imagined as the tiniest miniature of the Big Apple, where Little Italy and Chinatown meet across a network of local legend.

The Cafe Letterario, or the Black Cat, is a miniature Italian osteria, with excellent barista coffee, Italian specialities and wine. There are literary evenings, crowds wedged into what little space there is to listen as the bold launch into poem, song or story. Staff and paraphernalia exude a homely, though sophisticated Italian character. I like to sit in the window, or of a fine day on the outdoor bench. A mural gazes down, speaking of love. Above, one imagines washing lines painted to infinity against a mediterranean sky while Vesuvius rumbles ominously in the mid-distance.

Farther along, Pizzas. and Cream were a fixture on the Walk for thirty years or so. When I set up as a designer and illustrator here in the early eighties they were an early client. My menu illustration became an evergreen. It’s a fanciful evocation of Tuscany, or whatever Italian region happens to be in your thoughts. Design is to trigger desire in the mind of the beholder, and this seemed to work. Pizzas were good, of course, and there was a pleasant patio and garden to the rere to con you further into Mediterranean immersion.

Old favourites may go, but new flavours will take their place. There’s a rich mix of contemporary flux and ancient history in Albert Walk. An Italian name adorns another cafe, but the accents are Eastern European. The hulk of a forgotten cinema nurtures a neon casino and there’s an Asian Supermarket. 

My first published short story, Coda, was set around here. I imagined a late night thoroughfare to the dancehalls and clubs that abounded back in the heyday. And I seasoned it with some murder and rock and roll. The story won a competition in the Bray People, adjudicated by Arthur Flynn, local author and chairman of Irish PEN. Arthur, who has written some fine histories of Bray, thought that the author, myself, must have been a local rather than a blow-in. But then, as a fiction writer, I’m good at making things up. Coda, rather weirdly, is the first story in my debut collection, Blues Before Dawn, published in 1992 by Poolbeg.

Exiting the lane, we take a sharp left and head for the seafront under the railway bridge. The Signal Art gallery is tucked into the railway line. Founded as a working gallery and studios in 1990, Signal was an important step in developing Bray’s art movement. Locals and blow-ins were equally nurtured. Art openings spilled onto the pavements to mingle with daytrippers and nightclubbers. That’s entertainment.

At the corner, we’re back on the seafront. The Sealife centre is the largest building on the Esplanade itself. Established in 1998 it quickly became Bray’s top visitor attraction. Within its ingenious environment a mix of exotic and local sealife circulates. Visitors mingle in inner space with sharks, stingrays, piranhas and the occasional octopus. Admission tickets give all day access, a typical visit taking about ninety minutes.

Asides from the main attraction, there’s a ground floor cafe. Butler and Barry’s Gastro Pub takes up the top floor. Excellent for a late evening meal, when the theatrical effect of the interior is at its peak, with the glass wall filled with rolling blue sea to the Eastern horizon.

The Carnival occupies much of the northern esplanade in season, and spills farther south during festival. The Bandstand dates from Victorian times, but the focus of crowds on music remains, if the music itself has changed. Resorts like Bray used to conjure up marching bands, all brass and blazers, an audience lounging in deck chairs. That very English oompa oompa had by the sixties merged with the more surreal visions of the Beatles circa Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The young and the old mix. They always do. Showtime in August sees big attractions on the Bandstand, culminating in the frenzy of fireworks night. The Annual airshow is also a major focus, packing a hundred thousand onto the seafront and the Head.

Amongst those threading the boards there have been ubiquitous tribute bands with a sprinkling of originals. I’ve seen the Undertones, Mary Black and local heroes the Cujo Family. It ain’t always rock and roll, but somebody’s going to like it.There’s always a soundtrack and all the fun of the fair.

Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?

Everytime she walks down the street

Another girl in the neighbourhood

Wish she was mine, she looks so good

Teenage Kicks was the first single of Derry punk rockers The Undertones, released in 1978. It must have been thirty years later when I saw them perform it in Bray. I know, you’re only young once, but sometimes it’s good to remember.

I’m gonna call her on the telephone

Have her over ’cause I’m all alone

I need excitement oh I need it bad

And it’s the best, I’ve ever had

I wanna hold her wanna hold her tight

Get teenage kicks right through the night

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 3

I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around

I’m never in one place I roam from town to town

And when I find myself a-fallin’ for some girl, yeah

I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world

Yeah I’m the wanderer, yeah the wanderer

I roam around around around

written by Ernie Maresca and originally a hit for Dion in 1961, The Wanderer has been covered by the Beachboys and Bruce Springsteen, amongst others.

There are swans in the harbour, seagulls on the seafront, and starlings just about everywhere. It nearly takes me back to Cornwall, shielding sandwiches from savage gulls on beach picnics all the way from Penzance to Mousehole. There I understood where Daphne Du Maurier got her inspiration for The Birds. Wisely, Irish people are not inclined to throw food away, other than to the odd swan. Outdoor eateries discourage the habit. Bray’s birds are to be enjoyed, and left to their own devices. Seagulls, for their own part, may wander inland, as may we, making our way along Wicklow’s Wonderful coast. Beyond the level crossing, the Carlisle Grounds are home to Bray Wanderers. The soccer team has twice lifted the FAI Cup, in 1990 and 1999. For most of this century they have played in the top division of Irish soccer, but were recently relegated. Small crowds still huddle in its stand, sending up samba beats and the mournful call: Seagulls!

Across from the Carlisle Grounds stands Bray Bowl. Originally this site was occupied by the International Hotel, the largest in Ireland when it was built in 1862, reflecting Dargan’s optimism about Bray’s development as a resort. The Hotel ran into hard times during the Great War and after independence it remained derelict for a while. During the Emergency, it was garrisoned by the Irish Army and returned to the hotel trade afterwards. Although Bray boomed again as a tourist resort in the fifties and sixties, good fortune would not smile on the International. The new tourist boom was more downmarket from Dargan’s day. There were plenty smaller, less expensive hotels in the town. Nearby, the Arcadia rocked to the sounds of Roy Orbison and Brendan Bowyer, but the International was suspended in amber, an album of monochrome photographs of a fading past. On a night in June, in 1974, fire broke out. The few remaining residents escaped but the building was gutted. Development took another fifteen years, before completion of the bowling alley and games arcade.

Bray Railway Station was built in 1854 when the line connecting to Dublin opened. Designed by George Wilkinson, designer of Harcourt Street station, the original Dublin terminus for Bray which closed in 1959. It is a long, single storey Italianate building facing onto a haphazard plaza. To the rear, the original roof sweeps into a huge overhang to shelter passengers. Although the track had pushed on to Greystones by 1855, the East platform was not added until 1928. It is laid out beneath a glass canopy on caste iron supports.

DART, for Dublin Area Rapid Transit, arrived in 1984. DARTs average every fifteen minutes, taking forty minutes to reach central Dublin. The fast and frequent commuter service facilitated a population boom. By the end of the century Bray’s population doubled to over thirty thousand people, including yours truly. Bray station remains a busy hub, perhaps at last fulfilling Dargan’s expectations for the town.      

The station is distinguished by a fine mural along the length of the eastern platform. The project was initiated by the Bray Community Arts Group in 1987. The group, formed to foster art activity and push for greater facilities including an arts centre, sponsored the competition to design a mural for the station. Jay Roche and John Carter, then students at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, won the competition by popular vote with their proposal for an illustrative sequence of Bray since the Steam Age. They painted nineteen panels commemorating the history of the station from its foundation in 1854 up until the 1980s. Every picture tells a story, from retreating British soldiers after the War of Independence, to mods, rockers and hippies heading off to Rock Festivals.

Well known faces include Eamon DeValera, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. It was Sir William Wilde who owned property at the southern end of the seafront and after his death, caused Oscar to be summoned to Bray Courthouse when dispute arose over his inheritance. That went poorly, but other more ruinous courts awaited him. And, of course, there’s panels devoted to the main men of the railway: Isambard Kingdom Brunel and William Dargan.

The briny sea air meant that the painted mural had badly deteriorated by 2010. The original artists had formed the company Triskill Design and built up an impressive portfolio of commercial murals and interior design. They took on the Mural to Mosaic project, instating tiled mosaics for the faded originals.

Walk along its length and see the story start with a photograph – how modern can you get! – then move on through the leaves of time to finish, brightly, with a panorama of Bray and its big green mountain. There are battles and love affairs, and many’s the song to sing.

At the southern end, as we step into the future, the mural features the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, from the album Bringing it all Back Home, of 1965. A shorter, electrified version was made by The Byrds. It was their debut single and a huge hit, credited with kickstarting the folk rock boom, the very initiator of the term The startling twang of guitar and heavenly choir vocals are echoes of a different time, but are for all time.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

If I should be waiting on the platform, this is where I’d be sitting. The Southeasternmost seat, in the rays of the setting, or rising, son. Hat pulled low but eyes wide open. Sparking up a cheroot with the sharp glance of a lucifer to the sole of a western boot, and thinking. Byrds or Dylan, what’s my favourite version? The answer’s right here. The penultimate panel features Davin Harrison, guitar at the ready and friends in tow, heading off from the platform to some festival or whatever awaits in the wild blue yonder. Mr Tambourine Man was the first song he sang, but you’re never going to hear it unless you heard it before. Who knows though? Sometime when you’re alone, isolated on a windy day, and you hear some song singing in the high tension wires. Who knows what it is? Who knows who’s singing? 

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship

My senses have been stripped

My hands can’t feel to grip

My toes too numb to step

Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 2

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, 

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

Round many western islands have I been 

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 

Bray Promenade looking south is Bray’s iconic vista. The waves fall to the stony beach on our left, the green Esplanade is arranged to our right, while the clenched fist of Bray Head rises up before us. Postcards, photos, paintings all convey the same scene, at different points in history. Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian splendour, the last days of sepia elegance in Edwardian times, more downmarket family fun post Independence, and the technicolour imagery of John Hinde postcards in the fifties and sixties. Still the parade goes on, everchanging, still the same. 

Off to the east, the blue horizon is constant, but even there chimeras lurk. Sometimes Wales leers up from the horizon, its diaphonous mountains and cliffs disrupting the pale blue emptiness. Then it shimmers into nothingness again. This is a rare sight, such that when it does appear it might be considered a mirage, just another trick of the light, and of Bray.

To the landward side, the curved, art deco facade on the corner wraps the vestigial remains of the Royal Marine Hotel. Bray’s first seafront hotel was built in 1855, the year after the railway arrived in its backyard. Sixty years later, as war raged in Europe and revolution simmered in Ireland, the upper floors were destroyed by fire. The site lay derelict for twenty years, when in 1936 the ground floor was recast as the Railway Buffet, with the current facade. This later became the Dug Inn, operated by the Duggan family, who now run several seafront establishments, including the Harbour. They have expanded these premises into The Ocean Bar and Grill, including Platform Pizza and the BoxBurger. To confuse matters, locals often refer to the spot as Katie’s, from the pub’s previous name Katie Gallagher’s. This itself derives from the name of a low rugged peak visible to the northwest, part of the Dublin Mountains in the vicinity of the Scalp.

The level crossing leads up towards the old town a half mile beyond. Some years back on rounding the corner, I ran into a nuclear family of African origin heading seawards, luggage in tow. The young boy was maybe seven or eight. His eyes opened wide with delight as he looked past me to the view. “Oh, look at the big, green, mountain!”

Though I well knew what was there, I had to turn and look. Yes, the Head, rising sheer from the sea, is nothing if not a big green mountain. Well, technically, at just under nine hundred feet, it is a hill, but greatly magnified in its drama. I saw it again with this child’s eyes, as when first  standing at that age before the big green mountain. 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 

When a new planet swims into his ken; 

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men 

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Beneath the big green mountain, there were other wonders to behold: the amusement arcades and the seafront carnival with their dodgems and swingboats, calliopes and candyfloss. In any age, there is something in the seafront resort that reeks of rock and roll and all those seductive scents of fun, food, sex and machinery. All the crazy things to grab a youngster and carry them along like an amusement ride. In the sixties it was Beatlemania, mods and rockers, dancehall days, and holidays in Bray.

I holidayed here with my parents and siblings in 1963, stayed in a BnB by the Carlisle Grounds. I was seven years old. Uptown, the Italian cafe, Mizzoni’s on Quinsboro Road, had a Scopitone, a jukebox with a 16mm film insert. How modern can you get? As kids we were thrilled, though the choice was limited. My big song just then was I Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers but that wasn’t an option. Telstar by the Tornados was the best bet. The Tornados were Billy Fury’s backing band. But it was they who were the first of the English invasion to hit number one in the US. Telstar might be said to have spawned the sci-fi sound, with such later echoes as the Doctor Who Theme and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Telstar itself, was the name of a series of satellites launched from Cape Canaveral in 1962. They were the result of a multi-national project between Europe and North America with the aim of developing transatlantic tv and telephone communications. The world of instant global communication was realised. It’s something we take for granted today but was a wonder sixty years ago.

A Beautiful Day on Bray Promenade

Though the Lord Bono hath decreed that: All is quiet on New Year’s Day, still I couldn’t help but feel the shriek of life on Bray Promenade in early January. Above the waves, below the Head, beside the sweet green icing of the Esplanade and within its neverending parade of people. Life goes on, takes flight, even, into a waiting sun. People have been walking this pavement for a century and a half. Me, for well nigh two score years. I am writing a path from here to the far extreme of the Wicklow coast, somewhere past Arklow. But first, the reality of the now.

Drinking in the morning sun

Blinking in the morning sun

Shaking off a heavy one

Heavy like a loaded gun

This acrylic is taken from that most well known, and well worn, vistas of Bray. The scene is often phrased historically, as if it was only a window on the past. Here, I’m looking forward. The view, taken into the sun, anticipates great things, though the glare itself obscures the details of what they might be. I used gold paint mixed in with the concrete. It’s cold, but there’s warmth. In the shadows of my memory I choose a theme.

What made me behave that way?

Using words I never say

I can only think it must be love

Oh, anyway, it’s looking like a beautiful day

Passing the Sea Life Centre, the bandstand spikes the sky to our right. To the left, waves crash on the stony beach. The Head and cliff walk loom ever larger ahead. I shield my eyes against the low sun. High noon approaches. Things are looking up.

So, throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right

Throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right

Throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right, for life

One Day Like This is written by Guy Garvey and taken from Elbow’s fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008. When it starts singing inside your head, it’s like the whole world is joining in. Wait for it.