As a member of the international online cyclists’ hosting community Warmshowers.org, we sometimes take in passing cyclists who are generally on a journey, sometimes of several days, sometimes of several weeks. When Bert messaged me about staying a night with us, all I had as an introduction was a brief profile on the Warmshowers website, so meeting him and getting to know him would be a journey of discovery.
When I opened the door to greet him, we didn’t exactly meet face-to-face, because my own head height was directly in line with his chest. In fact I first noticed the enormous size of his bike before I raised my head to look him directly in the face. Bert stands at a cool 7 feet in height. When I got round to asking him how tall he was, his reply was “Too tall!”. And when I stood up next to his bike (which is probably a 4XL in size) his saddle height was chest high for me, and it was just as well we could give him a double bed to sleep in, so he could lie across it diagonally.
Bert was from Holland, and was spending 3 weeks of his annual leave (from his work as a research scientist) cycling around the south of England, and when he stayed with us, he was en route to the port of Harwich to catch his return ferry to the Hook of Holland. As with all guests who have stayed with us, it was a pleasure to host Bert, and there is every chance that we will meet up again sometime in the future.
The freedom and versatility of the bicycle as demonstrated by the Dutch…..is this not what it is all about?
The last route ridden of the CTC Birthday Rides, the last pints drunk, and after the reluctant farewells to companions of the road it was time to de-camp, pack up the dew-sodden tent, and ride the 75 miles home. I had a ‘grand plan’…….make the National Trust property Upton House on Edgehill (of the famous battle) my first cake stop…….grand plan it was not because I made a needless ascent of a 16% gradient only to find this……
I will keep the expletives as a valve for the release of my own inner frustration….
….but I was cheered up by a gentle breeze coming from my right flank, this pub sign….
….and being welcomed home by Jenny to a superb meal that just happened to complement a nice glass of ‘savvy blank’ (kiwi for ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, if you didn’t already know).
Mention both Woodstock and Blenheim Palace and most people will acknowledge familiarity with both iconic sites, the first for its music festival and the second as the creation of the Duke of Marlborough and ancestral home of Winston Churchill.
We poked our noses through the gate of Blenheim to view the estate from the end of the drive, but noticed there was a footpath sign through the grounds…..but how did people get in? Simple really, there was a button to press to summon someone to open the gate…..remotely we presumed.
Then we took a pause on a grassy embankment, and was asked by a fellow cyclist which way we were going……and we all answered in unison “That way”!
Today’s ride was an undulating journey round small villages, but silly me, I forgot to switch on my mapping app, so can’t display the route here. So in its place, you can admire the juxtaposition of my bike next to this lime green machine tied up a lamp post…..I wonder who put it there?
Settling into a foursome, with Edward and me on solos, and Alex and Jean on a tandem, we headed across open rolling countryside to have a relaxing tea ‘n cakes in what seemed like a domestic cafe, sitting in the courtyard amongst the drying washing, and popping upstairs to use the family bathroom as a necessarium. So relaxed were we that Alex nodded off…..
I took an hour out to check out Hailes Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian Abbey that had met the same fate as most Abbeys in 1538, where monks were pensioned off and the buildings and contents dismantled. The early stages of the reform……
But coming away, to climb once again ‘over the Edge’ (to a height of 1000ft), we had this radical change of elevation that revealed a beautiful pastoral panorama behind us….
But a highlight of the entertainment programme last night was a presentation by Andrew Sykes of his journey from Tarifa to Nordcapp, a journey of some 7,500km. I can highly recommend his book (available on Amazon).
You can’t go anywhere in the Cotswolds without stumbling across places with quadruple-barrelled names……there are no simple Stows or Bourtons….they have to be ‘on the water’ or ‘on the wold’, or even ‘in marsh’……which means that aspiring wordsmiths like me fail to keep to notional word limits……
…as Alex and Jean did when they tried to cross this on their tandem…..but happily, it had a positive outcome. Pride had taken a knocking, but no broken bones, and not a scratch on the tandem…….and a over-dinner talking point for years to come. Yep, we will tease them….
With almost unbroken sunshine today, all 460 birthday riders were out on the roads, sometimes descending on the same cafes and adding to the frenetic tourist industry that has become the lifeblood of these parts.
There were only two options: do we or don’t we? I was linking up with Jean and Alex from Shropshire, and they were tandem riders, and like 460 other cyclists at this festival, we were confronted with the same choices……do we set off in the pouring rain and hope for an improvement or, like so many of them, do we mooch around indoors waiting for better things? Many stayed indoors about the venue, but we……..yes, the heroic ‘we’…..we headed out prepared to get soaked in the morning and (possibly) dry out in the afternoon……and our calculations were spot on.
Even the sun broke through the gloom, zooming along an old rail track, having escaped the tourist-ravaged Stratford and breathed a huge sigh of relief. But the sting in the tail (and tale) was having to climb back into the Cotswolds. The hills round here may be short, but they ain’t half steep!
Alex and Jean are nifty tandem riders. They took full advantage of the many descents, gathering speed and hurtling down the hills. There was no way a solo rider like me was even going to keep up with them…..but then the advantage was on my side when it came to climbing the hills…..there’s some complicated equation at play based on weight, speed and strength……but I don’t fully understand it.
“I’m riding a sportive” said the cyclist standing by his gleaming carbon bike and popping a couple of tablets in his water bottle. “What are those for?” I asked. “Oh they help with cramp. D’you want one?”. “No, I don’t dope…..” I said. He hesitated, looked at me, was about to say something, when I interrupted him…”You do realise they will be taking a blood sample at the end of the event……”. The expression on his face changed, and I left him to ponder his situation…..I got on my bike, turned to say goodbye, and I knew he had sussed my little ruse.
The forecast for today had been dire, and everyone set off on their chosen routes with expectations of getting very wet. Many did, but those of us who headed west stayed dry all day, even enjoying several hours of late sunshine.
But once off the Edge, there was no other way back to Moreton-in-Marsh but to laboriously climb back over it. A local passed it off as being nothing at all, but that was the reaction of a motorist whose only experience of climbing is changing down to a lower gear and going a bit slower…..with no physical penalty to pay. I gave him a smile and prepared myself for the 3km climb up to Snowshill……
I quietly crept out of the caravan, leaving a ‘thank you’ note to Elaine and Roley, but was greeted to a dank and misty morning. The 14km trek out to the Head had a mighty sting in its tail…..both a headwind and a 20% kick upwards at the end…..but I was treated to a free coffee by a mobile coffee stall perched on the top of the hill.
What had started at Mizen Head 1300km ago, roughly following the Wild Atlantic Way
a name that is well known to insomniacs who hear either, or both, of the shipping forecasts at 00.45 and 05.20 on BBC Radio 4. In the morning sea fret, it had a sense of drama all its own.
Even so early in the morning, a steady flow of people had begun to arrive, some on motorbikes, others in cars, to spend a fleeting few moments, take a “I woz ‘ere” photo, and scurry off to their next destination. Notable by their absence all along my route from the south were other trekking cyclists like myself. Unfortunately, the MizMal route is primarily seen as a classic charity ride, taking the shortest and least interesting route across the heart of the country. When I met people who proudly said they too had ridden the MizMal, I was always disappointed to discover it was invariably with a fully supported charity ride. Doesn’t Ireland have any unsupported adventurers who carry their own stuff and sleep in a tent?
So, now in Derry (Londonderry) to unwind, box the bike for the flight, and spend a few days discovering the fascinating but disturbing past of this troubled community. And the only indication that I was crossing the political border of NI was this sign telling me that kms were changing to miles. I wonder if that will change with Brexit…..?
I told Bernard, my camping pitch benefactor, that when he drew back the curtains in the morning he wouldn’t see me. As I crept away at 6.30, he wouldn’t have seen me anyway…..his bedroom was at the back.
All was silent as I cycled out of the village, and made my way through Glenveagh National park, over the huge climb that revealed sights like this
Looking for a pitch for my tent, I met Eileen and Roley
in a little caravan hideaway behind trees, a place they have owned for 30 years,
and they offered me their spare caravan for the night, and Eileen prepared me a chicken salad for supper. It is the fate of the solo traveller to have to accept such spontaneous acts of kindness.
If the BBC weather app is telling the truth, I will arrive at Malin Head, just 14km to the north, tomorrow when it is bathed in unbroken sunshine….so what of this mythical spot which is a star of the shipping forecast and famous for its stormy bad temper?
Was I glad I had left the climb over the Pass of Glengesh till this morning…..the conditions were perfect and the views from the summit had me lingering overlong chatting to a young couple who also couldn’t tear themselves away. They told me of their dream to walk the Camino in Spain, and I told them of the more ancient route along the north coast.
The descent from the pass was so steep, with tight switchbacks, that I thought the bike was going to run away with me. So glad I was only carrying 9kg of kit. The heavily loaded tourist might have had to walk down…….unless of course he had discs.
Once down into Ardara, it was breakfast time, which stoked me up for a longer stretch to Dungloe. Along the way I passed this team of men gathering in the dried turf, which in this country is used as, and sold for, winter fuel.
I chose to stop for the night at Gweedore simply because I liked the sound of the name. Something straight out of Harry Potter……and when I was told a good spot for camping would be down by the beach in the grounds of an abandoned hotel, I took one look at the site and knew I would have visitations from spectres during the night, so I asked a local if I could pitch on a patch of grass opposite his house. “Excuse me, do you own that patch of grass across the road”. “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why, what you have in mind? To cut it for me?”. This wasn’t going well. “May I pitch my tent for the night?”. “Course you can. Is that all? Where you ridin’ from”. When I told him, this is how he reacted: “Jeez, that’s a fecking long way…..just look at yuh, carryin’ no weight at all”….and I thought he was referring to my luggage, but he said it while patting his own considerable girth. “Suppose yuh want a shower then……”.
The morning brought a promise of decent weather but strong winds…..the reality was rather different: I had to wait out heavy rain before getting started, and dodge the showers as they occurred. However, heading due west to take in the dramatic cliffs of Slieve League, the northeasterly wind helped me over the numerous climbs, heading towards yet another remote corner of Ireland where Irish is still the working language.
The Slieve League cliffs have all the drama of the Cliffs of Moher, but without the crowds. They are too distant from anywhere, and they haven’t yet built the critical visitor’s centre that draws in the tour buses, and hence the huge crowds.
When I got to Glencolumbkille, situated right out on the edge of the peninsula, I’d run out of steam, and the thought of turning into the wind to climb over a challenging pass to get to Ardara (stress on final vowel, btw) suddenly lost its charm. Decision made, I looked for a pitch, and the landlord of a local pub kindly allowed me to hunker down on a patch of grass in his car park.
The village of Glencolumbkille has a very interesting history. From the days of the Famine in the mid 19thC, this part of Ireland has suffered dreadfully from mass migration, simply because there has been no employment. Then along came a priest, Fr McDyer,
in 1951 who decided he had to do something to stem the flow, and he set about building the folk village (a museum of local life), and fighting vigorously for investment in the infrastructure of the area. His success has made him a legend in these parts, so now I get the opportunity to spend the night in this very special place, where the community is scattered widely across the valley, and the air frequently resounds with the sound of tumbling water as streams come crashing down from the heights.
Although this is meant to be down time from the bike, there were a couple of out-of-town visits I had to make, and one was to a cemetery in the tiny village of Letterbarrow up in the Blue Stack hills.
You see, it was exactly 50 years ago, almost to the day, that I arrived in Letterbarrow with John and Pat (two class mates), only to discover that John’s great grandmother had died, at the age of 101. Anecdotally, I seem to remember something about her having a fall from a bicycle…..but that could have been just another good old Irish story fuelled by the Guinness. Anyway, I had my very first taste of an Irish wake where the body was laid out in the living room and people filed through the house continuously to pay their respects, and then stopped to have a drink and a chat. And this seemed to go on for a couple of days……and the supply of drink was endless.
As I stood by Annie Kerrigan’s grave in 2017, life really had come full circle, dragging back into my memory space so many forgotten things. Randomly, and nothing to do with Annie’s death, I remember how embarrassingly easy it had been to hitch hike in Northern Ireland in 1967, the year before the outbreak of the troubles. And as I cycled up to Donegal yesterday, I passed through a narrow bottleneck of land only 8km wide where the NI border almost meets the Atlantic. The proximity of NI is also corroborated by the accent in these parts….to me it is almost indistinguishable from the harsher tones and inflections of the six counties.
Serendipities happen aplenty on a journey like this, and they go far beyond discovering what is round the next bend or over the next summit. They abound in the people you meet along the way who have fashioned an extraordinary existence for themselves, overcoming many obstacles in search of their dream.
Rob and Mairead, both passionate about their cycling and walking, are also dedicated organic homesteaders, and I was privileged to be able to overnight at their house, sample the fruits of their organic labours, and share stories of the road. Like us, they are enthusiastic tandemists, and I was impressed to discover that their bespoke-built Thorn tandem was the same colour as the Dave Yates I am currently riding……in fact, it was from an advert of the yellow Thorn that I got the idea to have my new frame sprayed yellow.
When cycling through a country, it is one thing to discover its physical geography and its architectural and artistic beauty, but it is quite another thing to discover the people that live behind the frontages of the thousands of dwellings you pass along the way. I have been very fortunate to meet people like Rob and Mairead who have afforded me a glimpse of Irish life behind the scenes. And the many glimpses I’ve had during this trip have defied all of the stereotypes I’ve carried around in my head for years about Ireland and its people.
I am now in the town of Donegal, where I intend spending a couple of nights, and enjoying some non-bike time. I came here last as a 17 year old with two class mates as we hitch-hiked around Ireland grabbing free accomodation from the many scattered relatives we numbered between us. When we arrived in Donegal, John’s great grandmother had just died at the age of 101, and we found ourselves thrown into the thick of a full traditional Irish wake, followed by the funeral. I remember being bewildered by the whole affair…
and he is now buried in Drumcliff, just 20km north, having been exhumed from his first place of burial in Paris. Some have serious doubts that they actually transferred his body, and not that of a neighbour in the cemetery.
The first president of a newly independent Peru carried the unlikely name of Bernardo O’Higgins, whose ancestors were from these parts
and the mother of Bram Stoker, the infamous creator of Dracula, had also been born here and, unusually, survived a major cholera epidemic in which most of the local population perished. In fact, the name Dracula is said to have been coined by Bram from two Irish words meaning ‘bad blood’….so scotch the idea that it is a Transylvanian name.
Today has been an opportunity to give the legs a bit of a rest ( but not much) and spend time in this fascinating city, but the soporific heat has made me feel a bit lethargic and lacking in energy. But I came to with a smile when I noticed this sign outside a solicitor’s office……surely not…….Argue and Phibbs?
When you think you’re lost, but you’re not really, are you lost? That is the burning question….. After passing through Castlebar, I headed up to Foxford, then decided to take the ‘scenic route’ to Tobercurry (lovely name). I hadn’t researched this at all, so didn’t know what to expect…..it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Basically I followed my nose, interrogated the odd local as I passed (they seemed remarkably uninformed)
along narrow farm roads that had ‘lawn’ growing along the middle (a clear indicator of remoteness). Following the folds of the Ox Mountains, the enthusiasm I had for the frequent descents was dampened by the infuriating consequences…..dozens of sharp climbs (damn it)….and this went on for 30km.
Amazingly (and I myself was truly amazed), I ended up where I intended. 10km from Sligo, I decided to call it a day, hot sticky and tired, when Henry (a retired Garda) passed on his bike with his 2 grandsons. When I enquired about a pitch for my tent, he said: “Sure, I know just the place for you. 3km further on, there’s a field by a river, and a pub (now closed) across the road…..well, it’s their field. They’re a retired couple. Knock on their door and just say Henry sent you”.
Which I did…..got a warm reception….no problem about camping. The horses weren’t in the field at the moment, but the grass was long….waiting for silage harvest.
So my tent was enveloped in long grass, I went to sleep with the sunset, and was doing my yoga stretches with the sunrise in the morning……and when I got to Strandhill for breakfast, on a spur out into the bay, the store owner plied me with free coffee and gave me extra bread with my bacon and egg. Needless to say, he was a fellow cyclist….and he spent a few minutes quizzing me about my bike
Moral: the unplanned can produce the best experiences in life…….and the hardest.
Last night I had a stopover with an extraordinary couple in an extraordinary location. Ed and Anya work from their home, overlooking Lough Mask, for a Falconry association, which means travelling around the world attending, and organising, events. Two days after my stay, they were off to Brussels for three weeks.
Their house is a traditional Connemara cottage, high on the hillside, surrounded by grazing sheep. During supper, I sampled both their homemade elderflower champagne and nettle wine. Surrounded by nature, they were feeding themselves directly with the fruits of the countryside…..and I spied a Richard Mabey book on the table, the late guru of the environment and harvesting the fruits of nature.
My destination this morning was to be Westport, popularly seen as the happiest place to live in Ireland,
but I also wanted to make a nodding acquaintance with Croagh Patrick, the mountain where the legendary St Patrick was supposed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland, and where today people troupe up on pilgrimage in search of indulgences….. reputedly, 25,000 climb it on the last Sunday of July to attend mass and confession on the summit. The logistics of the whole thing are simply mind-boggling, not to mention the provision of refreshments and loos. I mean, the whole event will last about 6 hours, so where do that many people go for a pee (not to mention the other more serious business).
Having had a 62km ride against a very strong NW wind, my own ‘indulgence’ was to finish the day with a 10km tailwind back to Westport. Ed and Anya’s wish that ‘the wind would be ever at my back’ finally came to pass……😊
At the end of yesterday’s ride, I got caught in a Connemara squally downpour, and arrived at my Warmshowers stopover completely drenched. Kate, my host, totally unperturbed by my sodden state, greeted me with a hot drink and chocolate biscuit, introduced me to Valentin, her German AirB&B guest, and showed me the shower. In the heartland of Gaelic-speaking Ireland, I listened to Kate chatting to her 3 year old daughter in Irish, a language that had been her only toungue growing up on a remote Connemara island. She had only learned English when she started going to school at the age of 7. Now she is fluent in several languages.
Many of the roadsigns and advertising boards are written only in Irish in these parts, and the people I mixed with in shops and pubs were all speaking their native tongue…..but it is threatened by the invasiveness of English. Simply teaching it in schools is not going preserve Irish as a working language. As few as 77,000 (2% of the population) speak the language, mostly in remote corners of the west, but importantly, non of them are monoglot….meaning they all speak fluent English as well. This could spell disaster for the local vernacular. Ireland seems to be the only country in Europe where they have adopted a foreign language as their lingua franca.
and curious about the sheep auction at Maam Cross, where farmers were everywhere with their Land rovers and trailers, a local farmer tried to sell me a couple of his lambs left over from the auction….tie ’em to the back of the boike, he suggested. ‘Tis good Oirish lamb after all.
Today has been a long hard day ‘at the office’, crossing the huge limestone plateau of the Burren, which is festooned with standing stones and other evidence of ancient civilizations, and underpinned by vast networks of caves. A huge chunk of the day’s riding was sweeping around the enormous Bay of Galway, and there were times (especially during the last 40km against a furious headwind) when I cursed the lack of a convenient ferry across the bay, so as to cut out the huge detour for likes of people like me.
Anyway, given that the WiFi reception everywhere on the Burren has been ‘pants’ over the last few days, there were several photos I was unable to upload in the last two posts, so here’s a selection, some of which might amuse you. The Matchmaker pub in Lisdoonvarna encapsulates some of the town’s heritage. It is (and has been for many years) the matchmaking capital of Ireland when, in September, unmarried farmers would come from their remote rural locations to the matchmaking festival to find a bride. Quaint, I know, but that’s how they do such things in Ireland.
Most of the aches and pains from the fall from grace yesterday were, thankfully, in recession…only to be replaced by the trial of a head wind all day. Well, I did have to go from east to west, didn’t I, and even amateur meteorologists like me know that prevailing winds in these parts come from the west……but, sometimes we simply have to pay the price.
Nick and Anne were excellent hosts last night. Conversation over the table flowed till I had to excuse myself and crawl into my sleeping bag in the cabin. I emerged ready for breakfast the next morning as Anne was heading off for her shift as a nurse at Limerick hospital. Nick had formerly worked as an architect until the the crash of the construction industry in 2008….now he turns his hand in a number of artistic areas to earn a crust.
I headed out to the Cliffs of Moher, the most visited natural attraction in Ireland, so had to expect to be joining the masses to see this extraordinary sight. Cliffs rise out of the sea for over 200 metres, and stretch for over 5 miles (8km), most of which is visible land side. Whatever you see on the internet, or in photos, being physically present and seeing them for yourself is something very special.
Doolin, where I am spending the night in my tent, is famous for being the gateway to the Aran Isles, and for its music pubs. As I tap in this post, a traditional Irish band is tuning up……and I have a pint of Guinness at arm’s length….😁