The Tea Cosy is no more and the TV and electrical goods shop is also no more but there is still a very visible Clarke presence on the Octagon in Westport town, writes Padraig Burns.
Stephen Clarke, the grandson of PJ Clarke, bases his Westport Walking Tours right beside the old Clarke’s business premises and twice a day, five days a week Stephen, or one of Brian Duffy, Richard Marsh, and Deirdre McGuirk will don the yellow jacket and bring their customers on an hour-long walk around the town, filling them in on the history of the town along the way and proffering them with little bits of advice that will make their time in Westport that little bit more enjoyable.
Stephen is about to start his sixth season of walking around the town with visitors to Westport. His late uncle in Derry, Martin McCrossan, gave him the idea and he’s glad he listened to him.
“Martin used to do the walking tours in Derry and it was very successful and every time he’d be in Westport he’d be on to me to do one here. So finally I decided to grasp the idea and here we are today,” he said
Here he is true. The yellow jackets and t-shirts are now part and parcel of the tourist season on the streets but it was not always like that.
“When we started six years ago we often had no customers for days on end. When we did get people we were getting ones and twos. There were people looking at us and wondering if were we mad walking around the town, sometimes in the rain, with one person.
“But we were committed to it and we stuck at it. It was tough going but we’re still here at it six years later,” said Stephen.
He’s very proud of his Westport roots and of how his grandfather, PJ, was involved at the outset of the Westport Tourism Organisation all those years ago.
“I grew up listening to stories of my grandfather bringing Princess Grace fishing on Clew Bay and how along with so many other people they set about putting Westport on the map as a tourism destination.
“Aiden, my uncle, carried on that tradition and it was only last year that Aiden retired from the Westport Tourism Organisation after years of service.”
He sees Westport Walking Tours as another way of growing the Westport brand and he seems to be particularly proud that he’s based on the Octagon next door to where it all started all those years ago.
Over the years WWW has grown in popularity and it is not uncommon now to see large groups of people walking after a yellow-jacketed guide.
Some of the biggest tour bus companies now stop in Westport and spend an hour on their walking tour and they also have some time factored into their stop to take a look around the shops and the cafes.
The punters obviously like the product and last week Westport Walking Tours received the Gold Medal award for being the Best Walking Tour in all of Ireland (32 counties) from CIE Tours International Annual Awards of Excellence.
For Stephen, the award was a vindication of sorts for sticking with the tour when no one was walking with them to chasing down the likes of Trafalgar and Brendan to persuade them to stop in Westport as part of their route around the west of Ireland. “It was great from all of those perspectives but also for Brian, Darren, Martin, and Deirdre who is so good at what they do. They are all qualified and experienced guides and the customers love the way they do the job.”
Stephen was in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin collecting his award along with Brian Duffy. They even got a chance to wear the Sky Sportsesque yellow ties.
However, like every successful business, Westport Walking Tours can’t stand still and it continues to evolve. This new season will see the start of a food tour and a pub tour and already at this early stage of the year, they have the best part of 500 bookings penciled in.
The pub tour will see tourists tasting Poteen (the legal version) and a pint of special while the food tour will start in Blousers with a Tayto crisp sandwich before stopping at the likes of Becca’s Bakery, Sheila’s Food Emporium, Marlene’s Hot Chocolate, Market 57, Sol Rio, Savoir Fare, and Cian’s before rounding the tour off with a dessert of beautiful homemade ice cream in Krem.
You did read that right, first off on the pub tour is a crisp sandwich in Blousers.
After that, it’s all local foods all the way until we finish with Graham Byrne’s ice cream in Krem on Bridge Street.
“Graham is actually a fourth-generation ice cream maker so that’s a real treat to finish off the tour around the town.”
He’s a busy man Stephen and as we spoke last week he was putting the finishing touches to a book and hopes to have it ready for the new season that starts on April 1st and runs through right to the end of September.
It will have one hundred and sixty pages in it and apart from having the Westport tour included it will have a number of guides to different tours around the county of Mayo as well as photographs, both historical and contemporary.
The new season of Westport Walking Tours starts on April 1st and they are based on the Octagon in the town.