“Best pub in the world, Stu” said Danny, wafting a printed sheet of A4 under my nose bearing a photo of an average looking bar.
“Lonely Planet”, underlining the fact in the article with his finger, “That means we have to go there.”
I couldn’t really argue with Danny’s logic. It was after the best pub in the whole world as chosen by one of the most respected names in world travel. I sighed with resignation that this would happen. All that stood in our way was finding the right day and buying a bunch of petrol station flowers.
It look a good 30 seconds of research to find a suitable date and then a 2 minute walk down to the Shell garage at the bottom of the road to purchase the PSF’s. The Current Mrs Fuller was ecstatic at the floral arrangement, but quickly wised up when she saw the price tag and where they’d come from. Her first reaction was to suggest I had done something wrong. Once convinced I was not guilty of any crime she asked the follow-up question “So where are you going?”. I told her the plan and she nodded in silent approval before laying down two conditions. “Strictly no Guinness and no watching stripping Catholic nuns unless they are Margot Robbie”. The CMF is a wise judge of character.
We had a deal and so that’s why we were fighting for elbow room at the bar of Wetherspoons at Gatwick South at 7am on a sunny Saturday morning. Whilst our port of arrival (and departure) would be Dublin, our final destination would be at the seaside in County Wicklow.
Bray is a hidden treasure in that virtually all visitors to Dublin never venture further afield than St James’s Gate in the west of the city and thus it stays off the well-worn Stag/Hen party route. Just forty minutes on the DART from the carnage that is Temple Bar, Bray offers fresh air, clean beaches and of course football. As well as being home to the Harbour Bar, said best pub in the world, Bray was also home to Irish gold medal boxing Olympian Katie Taylor, new kid on the singing block Hozier and the quite frankly barmy Sinead O’Connor. I doubt we would bump into any of them in the Harbour Bar, The Porterhouse Brewery or The Carlisle Grounds, home to Bray Wanderers.
This was to be my final game of a long season which had started on the 5th July last year when Brighton & Hove Albion had visited Lewes. Eighty games later, having travelled to the other side of the world (twice) to watch games and I would be signing off for the campaign watching The Seagulls again, only this time the Bray variety. A long close season of 5 days was to follow before I began the 2015/16 campaign with West Ham’s first ever Europa League tie, against the Andorrans Lusitanas on Thursday. And they say footballers have it hard, what about us poor fans?
Of course the football was really only a secondary concern on this trip. The opportunity to sample some of the best beers in the whole of Ireland as well as a bracing 4 mile Sunday morning cliff-top walk were the main items on the agenda. My good friend Mr Air Miles had provided the flights, whilst the weak Euro vs the Pound meant it was cheaper to stay in a decent hotel in Bray than fill my car with petrol.
We hopped off the bus right in the middle of the Gay Pride march. Fortunately it was heading in the same direction so we used it as cover to avoid the what seems like hundreds of people giving out leaflets on O’Connell Street for open top bus tours – unless someone had found scientific proof that gay people are more likely to take said trips than others, in which case it was genius marketing. Our first venue was J W Sweetmans, a small brewery on the south bank of the Liffey which had launched its new summer beer the night before. “Seven beers lads?” the barmaid asked us? A bit familiar we thought until she placed seven “tasters” of all of their beers on a tray for us. Not a bad start to the weekend.
Next stop was Ireland’s best pub, no less. The Brew Dock, almost opposite Connolly Station. Within three minutes we could see why. Galway Bay beer, including the rare as an Andy Carroll appearance, 8percenter Of Foam and Fury. We could have stayed in there all day but we had a plan to maximise our time. Forty five minutes later we stepped off the DART at Bray and braced ourselves for a slice of culture before the big match.
We checked into our hotel, went up to our room, found it was a double, went back to reception, explained we were friends but not that good friends, stopped ourselves combusting with laughter when the receptionist told us we were in room “230” (say it with an Irish accent) and that the bar closed at 9pm (really? In Ireland?) and then headed out again. We had the world’s best bar to visit after all.
I’m not sure what the chap from the Lonely Planet was on when he voted the Harbour Bar the “Best bar in the world” back in 2010. It’s not bad, in fact it’s got bundles of character but the downstairs bar looked a bit like the Pheonix Club after the fire, with strange old objects on all available surfaces. I have nothing against old typewriters personally but I’d rather have somewhere to put my beer. You can’t argue that it had some decent beers and a great location, but I’ve been in better. In fact by the end of the evening I would say it wasn’t even the best bar in Bray. But we had to try it, just like we tried an untitled place almost opposite the ground which was full of very drunk men and women sitting alone at tables with beers double parked.
The Seagulls, or to give them their full Irish name, Cumann Peile Fánaithe Bhré, haven’t had the most successful of histories. Their golden years, under the stewardship of the legendary Pat Devlin came back in the late nineties when they won the First Division twice and the FAI Cup. Devlin has since stepped back into the managerial hotseat on no less than five occasions, although his services weren’t called for when Polish manager Maciej Tarnogrodzki was given the boot last month. With off the field issues with the ownership of the club, coupled with a relegation fight it hasn’t been the best few months to be a Bray fan. But fear not, we were here now – that was sure to make things better!!
Bray Wanderers 1 Sligo Rovers 0 – The Carlisle Grounds – Saturday 27th June 2015
When you are fighting for your lives at the wrong end of the table you will take any goal, and that is exactly the thoughts the 500 or so home fans will have come away from this game with. McNally’s scrambled early effort which seemed to rebound off half a dozen players before creeping over the line lifted The Seagulls up to ten place, leap-frogging the visitors.
On the pitch there wasn’t much to talk about during the ninety minutes. Sligo probably edged the first half and can feel unlucky that every time they had a chance on goal a Bray player somehow got in the way of the ball. During the second half neither keeper had much to do as time after time the ball broke loose in midfield.
It had all started so promisingly. A €3 Seagulls key ring solved our craft beer bottle issue for later in the night, the chips with curry sauce were only marginally spoilt by a short, sharp shower that diluted the sauce and Danny got his picture taken with a giant seagull. Best day ever you could say. We even bumped into a ground of Finnish ground hoppers, one of whom sported a huge West Ham tattoo and smoked big, fat cigars like they were going out of fashion and regaled us of tales of fisticuffs the last time they came to England to see a game – at Corby Town versus Hinckley United. Obviously.
The Carlisle Grounds is a modest affair that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Ryman Premier League. One old terrace with some seats bolted on with a new temporary stand on the other side. Both ends have been cleared awaiting some redevelopment, but with the club looking for someone to take them over it could be awhile yet before anything new appears behind the goals.
We headed out of the ground, excited for what lay ahead. The Porterhouse was our destination of choice for the evening and it treated us well. Too well some may say as we staggered back to our hotel at 11pm with a paper bag full of chow mein. Sophistication is our middle name and the Chinese would be washed down with our beers we had left in the sink before heading out.
But there seemed to be a conspiracy afoot. The bar in the hotel didn’t close at 9pm. It was heaving, with a live band playing when we arrived. It appeared to be a private party but two young handsome Englishmen were more than welcome it seemed. When they left, we were invited in as poor substitutes. Danny was soon up on his feet, jigging around the room to the Irish Rover, then bringing the house down with his rendition of Danny Boy.
Sunday dawned first at 6am when our alarms went off. Then at 7am and finally at 7.30am. Were we really going to do the 6km hike up the hill and along the cliff walk in the rain? We felt we should and as soon as we had ascended to a point where we needed oxygen (about 10 metres above sea level) the sun was shining and we were in our groove. What better way to blow out the cobwebs of a superb night. Bray had been a star.
Most people don’t come to Bray for the football. We did, sort of, and it was up there with our wedding days, probably.
If you want more details of a trip to Bray then head on over to our sister site, 24 Hours in the City.